The unrest in Belgium continues after the Michel government proposed a new “labour reform”, which robs workers’ rights by legitimizing longer working hours and higher retirement age. The planned changes in labour law include flexibility in regulations of work hour calculations. These changes give local employers the power to impose up to a 45-hour work week instead of the current 38-hour work week, budget cuts in public services, as well as suppression of recuperation days, which results in lower payment for overtime working hours. Most importantly, the reforms rob workers’ power to negotiate with employers by giving the initiative to the companies to impose changes without a sectoral agreement.
The reform proposition has been met with intense reaction by the workers. On May 24, tens of thousands of public workers rallied in Brussels in a joint demonstration organised by FGTB, CSC and CGSLB, the three major trade unions of the country. The unions demand the withdrawal of the proposal, and active participation of the workers into decision making process through better dialogue.
A following 9-day railway strike largely disrupted public transportation in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia and partly Dutch-speaking Flanders, while many Thalys (high speed international trains) departures to and from Germany and Paris were cancelled. On May 31, some 10.000 workers gathered again in the capital in solidarity with the striking railway workers, which affected bus traffic and postal services, as well as garbage collection in Brussels.
Together with the leading socialist union FGTB, Christian union CSC and liberal union CGSLB called for mobilizations in the coming months against the government’s reforms. The declared action plan includes 24-hour general strikes on June 24, September 29 and October 7. Opposing the proposed changes in the labour law, unions call the government for dialogue.
“Everybody will be hurt very much by the abandonment of the 38-hour week, the increased recourse to temporary workers, the absence of coordination, the under-financing of (public services) or pensions,” FGTB official Michel Meyer told Le Soir newspaper.
“We encourage our members and supporters to show their solidarity by participating in pickets and actions that will be organized in their region. Our alternatives to anti-social policies of the Government are based on a just social model. With fair taxation. With quality public services. With strong social protection. In respect of social dialogue and freedom of negotiation” said CSC in a letter sent to its members.
“Our mobilization fits into the broader context of the increase requested to railway productivity. The proposed plan suggests a 20% increase in productivity in 5 years, which means 6,000 fewer jobs” says Philippe Dubois, Secretary of the CGSP railwaymen for Brussels.
Charles Michel, prime minister of the right-wing federal government, responded to the union mobilization against the reforms by expressing his openness for dialogue. However, he also stated that reforms are needed for public sectors, otherwise he fears “the country will become Greece or Spain in a few years”.
Apart from the union reactions against the new labour reform, prison guards in Wallonia and Brussels have also been striking for weeks due to their dissatisfaction of the working conditions of the penal institutions, including the over-crowding of the country’s jails, as well as the lack of staff in prisons. The government and union representatives have already held more than 10 rounds of negotiations to solve the crisis. In Flanders, officials accepted the government’s proposal without consulting the workers, while in Wallonia, 97% of the workers refused the deal in the ballot.