Although the employers did find some positive ideas, they – also as tradition wants – considered
the plans not going far enough. The trade unions, on the contrary, rejected the protocol as
absolutely unacceptable. The actions, taken so far and those announced for the future, are in
accordance with that position.
Yet, it is striking that it is emphasized repeatedly in the government protocol that the proposed
measures constitute a continuation and/or an enhancement of the measures taken by the Di Rupo
government. Moreover, Di Rupo himself commented scornfully that 70% of the announced measures were
already initiated by his government.
The important difference between, on the one hand, the extreme reaction of the trade unions
against this government protocol and, on the other hand, the moderate reactions of the trade unions
following the Di Rupo government protocol is quite striking.
Could it be that the trade union actions so far and the actions, yet to come, are (also)
somewhat politically coloured
Below, some of the social aspects of the government protocol are more closely examined.
1. The social consultation model
One of the main reproaches on the part of the trade unions towards the government was the fact
that – according to the trade union allegations – the government did not show any willingness,
during the governmental negotiations as well as thereafter, to have social consultation with the
industrial relations partners.
In the past, the politicians did sometimes set aside social consultation in cases of emergency: the
special powers, granted by the parliament to one of the Martens governments, serve as a typical
However, this does not affect the firm fact that social consultation has always taken an
uncontested important part in Belgian politics and that this role has not been challenged. A
government, which would fail to appreciate the social consultation model from the outset, would
certainly make life extremely difficult from the beginning and could even be suspected of having
some masochistic tendences.
Contrary to the allegations of the trade unions, the government seems to consider social
consultation very important: the second page of the government protocol is completely dedicated to
the importance, according to the government, of social consultation to introduce reforms
successfully, and to the undertaking of the government to get the industrial relations partners
involved in the realization of its goals. Likewise, in the chapters of the government protocol,
dealing with social items – in its broad sense –, reference is made repeatedly to consultation of
the industrial relations partners.
Hence, the reproaches of the trade unions seem premature.
2. Reduction of the salary cost handicap
One of the main goals, which the Michel government imposed itself, is “maximum growth and job
creation”. In order to accomplish that goal, the government considers it necessary to enhance the
competitiveness of the Belgian enterprises.
One of the most important means within that framework is the reduction of the salary cost handicap
in comparison with our surrounding countries (France, The Netherlands and Germany).
Three measures, announced within that context, are further commented on below:
2.1. Amendment of the law of 1996
The law of 26 July 1996 promoting employment and proactive safeguarding competitiveness was
enacted due to the pressure, exercised by Dehaene, Prime-Minister at that time.
It was the first time that a measure was taken, which explicitly aimed at tuning the salary cost
increase in Belgium on the salary cost increase in the surrounding countries. Based on this law,
the authorized maximum salary cost increase in Belgium, including the increase resulting from the
anticipated index increases of the salaries, was fixed each year in consideration of the salary
cost in our surrounding countries.
However, during the last years, this legislation was no longer rigorously implemented.
The Michel government undertakes to at least undo by the end of its legislature the salary
handicap, which arose since 1996 in comparison with the surrounding countries.
To achieve that goal, the government not only wants to see more strictly to the implementation of
the law, but it also wants to amend the law (read: tighten the law).
The annual determination of the authorized maximum increase of the salary cost is in the first
place left to the industrial relations partners. However, if they can not reach an agreement, the
government will take over that task.
If the industrial relations partners agree, the agreement must be laid down in a collective labour
agreement concluded in the National Labour Council. By using the mechanism of rendering compulsory,
such a CLA is binding for the sectors.
The means for seeing to compliance are rendered more severe and an automatic correction mechanism
will be introduced in the case of a failure to comply.
2.2. A reduction of the charges
The government wants to reduce the employers’ social security contributions by the end of the
legislature in such a way that the basic percentage amounts to 25%.
Knowing that the normal rate at present amounts to 33% to 35% - depending on the number of
personnel -, the achievement of that goal will be a true feat.
The real meaning of the notion “basic percentage” remains in any event an open question and it
seems that the “box of Pandora” will be opened from time to time, particularly when reading some
parts of the government protocol (by way of example: “The budget for the lump sum structural
decreases, including the increases decided upon with the frame work of the competitiveness pact,
shall contribute to this reduction of the basic rate” and “The budget for high salaries”
contributes to the reduction of the basic rate in such a way that the effective rate for the low
salaries shall in any event not increase as compared to the situation at present, inclusive of the
measures of the competitiveness pact.”).
It is, in any case, the intention that no single employer will be loosing as a result of these
reforms, “… taking into consideration, however, the law on competitiveness.”
2.3. An “index leap” in 2015
It is not surprising that this measure, taking only two lines in the government protocol of
almost 150 pages, is one of the most contested ones.
The automatic linking of the salaries to the consumer price index is a symbol for the trade unions
of the social achievements in Belgium. It is, worldwide, an (almost) unique system, particularly
because the salary increases follow automatically from the increases of the consumer price index.
As a result, automatic salary increases are a fully integrated part of the system, contrary to the
situation in the surrounding countries.
To break that spell, the government wants to apply an index leap in 2015.
The question remains what exactly is meant by “an index leap”. The way the system of linking the
salaries to the consumer price index functions in practice, is worked out for each sector in a
separate sector CLA.
So, in some sectors the salary is adapted once each year (mostly on the 1st of January of the
year). In other sectors, the salaries are adapted only if and when the index has increased with a
certain percentage (1.50%, 2%, …). In yet other sectors, the salaries are adapted much faster upon
an index increase in such a way that several adaptations may occur in the course of a year.
So, what is meant with “an index leap in 2015”? Is it a blocking of the salaries during the whole
year 2015? Is it a freezing of the first salary adaptation, which would occur in accordance with
the sector system? Or is it a freezing of the salaries up to a certain percentage of the index
In addition, the government yet holds another big stick: although the mechanism as such of
automatically linking the salaries to the index has not been affected, the government reserves
itself the possibility to reform the mechanism.
An example of such reform is the “health index”. Within that framework, the price evolution of some
products is excluded for the purposes of the calculation of the consumer price index. As a result,
the index rises more slowly. The government keeps the door open to introduce similar indirect
3. The unified status blue-collar workers / white-collar workers
The rules concerning the determination of the notice periods for blue-collar workers en
white-collar workers have been amended since 1 January 2014 in view of unifying the status of
blue-collar workers and white-collar workers.
At the insistence of the Constitutional Court, which believes that the legal status of blue-collar
workers and white-collar workers should be completely unified, the Di Rupo government had already
decided that a continued harmonising of the status of blue-collar workers and white-collar workers
should be achieved within a strict time framework.
This objective is taken over by the Michel government and, in particular, reference is made to the
guaranteed salary (the government protocol provides for an extension of the guaranteed salary in
case of illness up to two months), the annual vacation, temporary unemployment and the industrial
relations legislation, including the reduction of the number of joint labour-management committees
and the modernisation of the consultation process at sector level within the joint
Which active part the government will take in that process, is not clearly stated. The Di Rupo
government passed on this hot issue to the industrial relations partners and, considering the
political parties participating in the Michel government, it would be rather surprising if this
government would take the lead.
It is general knowledge that the industrial relations partners work discretely, but not less
thoroughly, together within the framework of the National Labour Council towards balanced solutions
and an active interference by the Michel government in these discussions is highly unlikely.
4. The end of the professional career
The rise of the legal pension age is a broadly debated item.
Within that framework the rules concerning the system of unemployment combined with an
employer’s supplement are modified and rendered more severe. Also with respect to this item it is
explicitly mentioned that “… the efforts of the previous government (…) to mitigate the use of the
system of unemployment combined with an employer’s supplement (SUS) …” are continued.
As from 1 January 2015 the required age for applying the general system, as laid down in CLA n° 17,
will be raised from 60 to 62 years. As from 1 January 2017, the required age for applying the SUS
for enterprises in restructuring and for enterprises in difficulties will be raised to 60 years. As
from 1 January 2015 the required age for applying the SUS will be raised from 56 to 58 years and as
form 1 January 2017 to 60 years in the case of 33 years of professional activities (heavy
occupations) and in the case of 40 years of professional activities.
As had been decided by the Di Rupo government, the possibility of applying the SUS as from the age
of 58 subject to 38 years of professional activities will be abolished as from 1 January 2015.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that workers, who meet all conditions imposed by the previous
legislation at starting date of the new legislation, in order to enjoy the SUS, but who did not yet
apply or don't apply for the SUS prior to this starting date, the former terms and conditions
still apply even if application for the SUS is introduced after the starting date. This
transitional rule results from the “click-system”, as referred to in CLA n° 107. For this purpose,
workers should apply, prior to that starting date of the new rules, for the certificate, as
referred to in CLA n° 107, to the National Unemployment Agency.
The Michel government started, beyond any doubt, with lots of ambition and enthusiasm and it
seems to become a very tough challenge for the government.