Unions submit strike notice for Belgium's entire retail sector

Unions submit strike notice for Belgium's entire retail sector
Credit: Belga / Nicolas Maeterlinck

A strike notice for Belgium's entire retail sector – meaning all retail chains across the country, from supermarkets to fashion stores – has been issued by trade unions ACV Puls and ACLVB.

Wages in the private sector can only increase by 0.4% over the next two years, according to the Central Council for Business (CRB). This means that the average wage, after indexation, in the distribution sector would barely rise by €8 over two years.

"That is unacceptable," said Kristel Van Damme, union secretary of ACV Puls, report Mediahuis newspapers. With the strike notice, the unions want to send a clear message a few weeks before the start of the sectoral consultations, which will start on 17 April.

The union noted that this increase is the maximum amount for full-time workers, while many people are working part-time in the sector who would see an even lower increase.

A trend of franchising

The strike announcement comes ahead of the sectoral consultations, which will start on 17 April. "On that day, there will definitely be action," Van Damme said, adding that it is still unclear if these actions also include strikes. "Whether more actions will follow later will depend on the course of the sector consultation."

Van Damme noted that this is the first time that a strike notice has been issued both for the large distributors and the self-employed.

The unions look to the chaos that has surrounded Delhaize in the past two weeks, after it announced its plan to franchise its company-owned shops. "It is clear that the problem is broader than Delhaize alone," said the union secretary. "There is a trend of franchising."

Van Damme stressed that clarity is needed for the whole sector. "We want to send a signal. The entire retail sector should be treated in the same way. Equal pay for equal work, whether you work in a franchise or not."

"Additionally, we also want trade union representation for the entire sector and not just for the major players," continued Van Damme. "Finally, parent companies must also take responsibility for their franchises. If something happens to a franchise such as bankruptcy, the parent company should take some responsibility for it. It can't just pull its hands off."

Same conditions sector-wide

The union advocates retaining Joint Committee 202, the most favourable in retail so that there is a unitary statute for all workers in the sector. "Wages in the sector are already low. It is not too much to ask that everyone will get at least the wholesale pay."

"We hope to reach a good agreement, but we fear it will not be an easy negotiation," Van Damme concluded.

Retail specialist Stefan Van Rompaey called the situation an unprecedented wave of action in the retail sector. "People's actions and anxiety are understandable. But I do not think it is a realistic demand from the trade unions to merge all joint committees into the most favourable one."

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Van Rompaey also commented that retailers have to digitise and become more sustainable to be CO₂ neutral, which are "all interventions that cost a lot of money." He added that unions should consider how companies can remain competitive.

ACV Puls recognises that companies in the sector are struggling and stated that they will not make reckless wage demands in those companies. But as for the companies that are performing well, there must be "opportunities for essential wage negotiations."

The unions have not yet determined exactly what will happen, but chances are good that a large part of the retail sector will go on strike.

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