National strike by Belgian trade unions sends a strong message to employers

On 29 March, the Belgian members of the BWI, ACV-BiE and the FGTB, joined forces to organise a national strike day that affected all sectors. It sent a strong message to employers during negotiations of an inter-professional agreement concerning wage increases, better working conditions and better end-of-career arrangements. Social partners failed to reach an agreement by the established deadline.

One of the issues under negotiation, from which 4 million employees in Belgium stand to benefit, is better wages. Other issues include worker mobility, training and end-of-career arrangements. However, at the forefront of discussions is the available margin for pay rises: this year, the Central Economic Council set the margin at 0.4 per cent, meaning that by law, salaries could be increased by no more than 0.4 per cent in the next two years. The unions refuse to accept such a limit during this health crisis.

The unions are demanding that sectors doing well be allowed to award pay rises of more than 0.4 per cent, irrespective of the crisis. "A number of companies have paid out hefty dividends in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. The coming period will be one of economic recovery, so we must not lump all companies together. For this reason, the two unions are asking for proper negotiations and real pay rises," the two unions explained in their call to strike. A 0.4 per cent pay rise is an increase of barely 6 euros gross per month for the lowest-paid workers and only 9 euros gross per month for workers in trades considered "essential". The unions believe that some sectors have the means to increase wages beyond the 0.4 per cent margin calculated.

For the employers' federations, this 0.4 per cent margin is a maximum – the crisis caused by the pandemic requires caution, since too big a pay rise could damage company competitiveness and lead to job losses.

The trade unions are also calling for better end-of-career arrangements and compensation for working from home.

The employer and trade union organisations were meant to sign the new agreement within two months of the publication of the Central Economic Council’s report. The new deadline is 14 April and the federal government is managing the process.

In a press release issued just before the strike, the joint trade union front stressed that "by refusing to increase our purchasing power, employers are hindering economic recovery and threatening social stability in the midst of a health crisis."