Meanwhile, on the other side of the barricades, a group of organisations representing employers issued a manifesto and a petition demanding they be allowed to run their businesses as free entrepreneurs.
Both sides claim to have the same goal in mind: the recovery of the economy and the stimulation of employment. But the positions are father apart than that claim would suggest.
“Enterprise is the motor of the economy; why put on the brakes?” was the message of the advertising campaign by the bosses, made up of 11 organisations, including the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (VBO), self-employed organisation Unizo and Flemish enterprise organisation Voka. As Flanders Today went to press, more than 22,000 people had signed the petition, which contained the following demands:
• A return to competitiveness by allowing businesses to be consulted before new laws are introduced that affect employment costs or conditions;
• A review of the conditions for workers and salaried employees, with a view to bringing them together into one single status. Companies would have more flexibility in laying people off, but the government would also remove the tax burden on redundancy payments and make more of an effort to put those laid off back into jobs;
• A change to the current system, where the over- 55s – the most experienced workers – are better off not working than working;
• Stimulation for entrepreneurship and for the greening of the economy
As for the unions, they are calling for a change to the law on “dismissal rights”, or the rules that govern how much notice workers are entitled to in the case of redundancies – or the pay in lieu of notice. As socialist union ABVV chairman Rudy De Leeuw explained, unless a worker is employed under a more advantageous collective employment agreement negotiated with the employer, the legal minimum is 56 calendar days for a worker with 20 years’ service.
“Workers should get a minimum of three months for every five years worked,” De Leeuw said. “We want to see a levelling upward, with labourers being brought up to the level of salaried employees.” The issue is of crucial importance in a climate of lay-offs, such as those planned at Opel Antwerp and those narrowly avoided at AB InBev in Leuven.
The Brussels demonstration involved the three national unions: ACV (Christian), ABVV (socialist) and ACLVB (liberal). “We felt we urgently had to send out a signal,” commented ACV chairman Luc Cortebeeck. Among the crowd were workers from Opel Antwerp, who had travelled to Brussels in 17 coaches. At their head was ABVV shop steward Rudi Kennes, who has led the opposition to the closure of Opel Antwerp and who was for a time carried on the shoulders of his comrades during the march.
Unions called for a dialogue with employers, asking them to submit “substantial” proposals for creating jobs, in contrast to what ACLVB leader Jan Vercamst called “the anorexia strategy”: “They are slimming so drastically that the health of the economy is being endangered.”
“The negative reactions of the unions are regrettable,” said Thomas Leysen, chairman of the Federation of Belgian Enterprise (VBO). “I can only repeat that our call was not intended as a provocation. It’s a positive message: give entrepreneurs the space to run their businesses, and they will. At the same time, we are ready for a debate about the reform of the labour market and the revival of our economy. I don’t understand their reaction, really.”
The idea that employers are happy to get rid of workers, either for the sake of their own bonuses or the enrichment of shareholders, is false, according to former VBO chairman Luc Van Steenkiste, writing in an opinion piece in De Standaard. “This is a land where solidarity with co-workers is in the blood, a solidarity that has to be balanced against the interests of the shareholders,” he commented. “The vast majority of Belgian company leaders, whether they’re owners or managers for foreign companies, are sick to their stomachs when they have to let people go. They do it as a last resort, with a heart full of dread, when there is no other option.”
“For employers, a change to dismissal rights is a central point,” said VBO director-general Pieter Timmermans in an interview with Jobat magazine. “Our economy is made up in large part of small businesses, and sometimes they too sadly have to lay people off. For employers like that, it’s just not practical to have to pay someone 20 or 30 months’ salary. And so it can happen that they don’t lay anyone off and, within a couple of months or years later, they have to close the doors entirely.”
Concluded De Leeuw: “It seems as if no social dialogue on this question is possible; the gulf has never been wider.”
Flemish labour minister Philippe Muyters promised a “tailor-made” policy on jobs, whereby “every job-seeker will be approached according to his needs”. The rapid return to employment of all those who lose their jobs, he said, was a priority. “We hope, both through training and negotiation, to get as many people back to work as possible. It’s a great shame that not everyone gets that impression.”