Government representatives are due today to begin crisis talks with trade unions and employers to break the impasse over wages policy for the next two years. The meeting comes after a proposed agreement from the Group of Ten, representing workers and employers, was rejected by the socialist unions, after having been accepted by their Christian and liberal counterparts.
The main sticking point, according to socialist union general secretary Miranda Ulens, was the cap on pay rises of 1.1%, itself an advance on the initial proposal of a maximum of 0.8%. The socialists voted 56% against, while the liberals approved the deal by 75.5%, and the Christians by 65%.
However despite the numbers in favour, neither union showed great enthusiasm. “Better something than nothing,” commented Christel Bekaert of the Christian union. “But if you see what a cleaner makes, compared to the big earners. The difference is just too large.”
Her union’s president, Marc Leemans, defended the bright side of the agreement, including a 10c rise on the minimum hourly wage, and increased benefits. “There’s an extra 720 million euros for people on benefits, like invalids and pensioners,” he said. “That’s very good news for those people. Better to have seven birds in the hand than 10 in the air.”
The agreement itself was long and hard in coming, and was finally approved by union representatives and employers at the end of February, with the proviso that union leaders would then consult their members on the issue.
Now, in theory, the government enters the picture as a mediator of last resort. The position is made more difficult, however, as this is a minority caretaker government, and a general election is only weeks away.
“We will have to see how the eight partners who have agreed the accord can carry on further,” said Kris Peeters, federal minister for employment. “It is essential to reach an agreement in order to guarantee a stable social climate that works in favour of economic development and job creation.”