1. Brief Description of Employees and Employers Organizations
The most important employers’ organization in Belgium is the VBO/FEB (‘Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen/Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique’). It is organized on a national scale and its members are the various employers’ organizations that are each active in a specific industry or sector. In addition, several regional employer organizations exist.
By application of the constitutional freedom of association, employees have the right of decision whether or not to join a trade union. Any employer applying pressure to join or not to join a trade union will be liable to criminal sanctions. Closed shops and non-union shops are outlawed in Belgium.
In Belgium, there are no restrictions regarding the creation of a trade union. However, only a few unions, considered as representative, are granted by law a specific role and specific rights. The three main representative unions are:
- The Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB / ABVV);
- The Confederation of Christian Unions (CSC / ACV);
- The Central Organization of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB / ACLVB).
In certain fields, the Belgian National Confederation of Executives and Managerial Staff (CNC / NCK) is also considered a representative union.
As their names suggest, the abovementioned large unions federate several smaller trade union organizations, traditionally competent in a given geographical area and within a set branch of activities.
2. Rights and Importance of Trade Unions
Traditionally, unions choose not to organize themselves under a form that would entail a separate legal personality. As a result, they only exist as legal entities to perform specific acts that are assigned to them by law. Trade unions, but not their members, essentially enjoy immunity from responsibility.
Representative unions have a place on the National Labour Council and the joint committees (committees at industry level where collective bargaining agreements are negotiated). In addition, they have the power to: 1) conclude collective bargaining agreements with one or more employers or representative employers’ organizations; 2) put forward candidates for elections to the Works Council and the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work; 3) ensure that the correct procedure is observed for the election of representatives; 4) depending on the circumstances, form a Trade Union Delegation within the company; 5) propose lay judges to sit on the labour courts and labour courts of appeal; 6) represent their members before labour courts; and 7) in some circumstances, engage in legal action on their own behalf in order to defend the interests of their members.
3. Types of Representations
The representative bodies that must be set up within the Belgian undertakings if the conditions are met, are the Works Council, the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work (CPPW) and the Trade Union Delegation.
Works Councils must be set up in undertakings employing at least 100 employees on average.
A Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work (CPPW) must be set up in undertakings normally employing at least 50 employees on average.
The notion “undertaking” is to be understood as a “technical operating unit”, i.e. an entity having a certain social and economic autonomy, whereby the social criteria are considered as more important than the economic criteria. An undertaking does not necessarily correspond to the legal entity (incorporated company).
A Trade Union Delegation must be established at the request of one or more representative trade unions in undertakings employing a minimum number of employees determined by CBA. The employer is obliged to accept this request.
In the event that there is no Works Council, the tasks of the Works Council are transferred to the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work and/or the Trade Union Delegation.
4. Number of representatives
The number of employee representatives within the Works Council and the CPPW depends on the number of employees employed within the undertaking at a certain time within the election procedure (see section 3 below) and ranges from 4 (for undertakings employing less than 101 employees) up to 22 employee representatives (for undertakings employing more than 8.000 employees).
If the undertaking employs at least 15 managerial employees, the number of mandates within the Works Council (not the CPPW) will be increased with one or two.
The employee delegation within the Works Council and the CPPW also consists of substitute members, equal to the number of effective members.
The number of union representatives within the Trade Union Delegation is fixed by CBA entered into on industry level.
5. Appointment of Representatives
Both the Works Council and the CPPW are composed of an employer’s delegation and an employees’ delegation. The employer’s delegation consists of one or more acting or substitute members designated by management and chaired by the head of the undertaking.
The employee representatives within the Works Council and the CPPW are union members, nominated by their union and elected within the frame of social elections, which must be organized by the employer every four years.
The most recent social elections took place in May 2016. Yet, the election process starts 150 days prior to the election date, so that Belgian employers had to start with the preparations of the elections in December 2015.
The members of the Trade Union Delegation are employees of the undertaking who are either appointed by the unions or elected by the other unionized employees of the undertaking (although not in the frame of social elections). Detailed regulations governing its establishment are laid down in CBAs concluded at industry and undertaking level.
6. Tasks and obligations of Representatives
(i) The Works Council
A Works Council is a representative body at company level designed to foster information, consultation and collaboration between employer and employees. The Works Council has competence in four areas:
1) the right to information;
2) advisory competence;
3) decisive competence; and
4) organizational competence.
In terms of content, they are competent at the technical, economic and social level.
For instance, the employer is obliged to provide the Works Council with economic and financial information concerning the undertaking at regular intervals.
The Works Council also has a right to be informed (and in some cases consulted) regarding the employment structure of the undertaking, any planned changes and their consequences on the work force, as well as employment matters such as work organization, collective lay-offs or closure, early retirement issues, time-credit, etc.
(ii) The Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work (CPPW)
The CPPW plays an advisory role in health and safety matters and is also closely involved in the recruitment of prevention officers.
(iii) The Trade Union Delegation
The Trade Union Delegation is a body representing union members within the undertaking whose competencies include matters relating to (i) industrial relations (supervision of the observing of employment legislation) and (ii) negotiations for concluding Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) without affecting existing CBAs or other agreements concluded at other levels. They also have a crucial role to play in conflict resolution and mediation between parties.