Representatives of trade unions and employer organisations have reached an agreement on salary increases for the next two years. Differences within the Group of Ten – the forum where the two sides are represented – had previously led to a national strike of private sector workers on 13 February. The final agreement, which now has to be ratified by members, came after a marathon of talks lasting 20 hours.
The essential of the agreement is a cap on salary increases of 1.1% above the index, bringing the final total maximum increase over the two years to 4.54%. The 1.1% increase is a compromise between the 1.5% demanded by unions and the 0.8% advised by the government’s financial planning unit.
Nevertheless, the agreement has been give a cool reception on all sides.
Employment minister Kris Peeters welcomed the agreement, and praised the members of the Group of Ten for “accepting their responsibilities”.
For Gwendolyn Rutten, president of the Flemish conservatives Open-VLD, the part of the agreement dealing with early retirement (see below) risked derailing the “jobs deal” already agreed by the government. “This was not in the agreement,” she said. “In a jobs market as tense as this one, we cannot do without people aged 58 and over.”
N-VA also criticised the chapter on early retirement, which it said was in opposition to the governmental agreement reached last summer – when N-VA was still part of the coalition. “I have to assume that the departing prime minister Michel will oppose this provision, and not go into reverse on his position, without a majority in parliament,” commented Peter De Roover (photo), head of the N-VA fraction in the chamber.
Elsewhere in the agreement, the group agreed on an increase in the minimum wage of 10 cents an hour, or 1.1% overall. Unions had been asking for a 10% rise. Unions and employers will now take part in a working group to look into how the minimum wage can be “substantially” increased.
Other matters decided include:
An increase in the employer’s share in public transport fares for coming to work, from 64% to 70%;
An increase in the number of voluntary overtime hours that may be worked, from 100 to 120 a year, fewer than employers had hoped;
An increase in unemployment benefit of 2.4% for the lowest level, and 1.1% for higher levels;
Changes to the age at which older workers can take a bringing pension, to 59 in most cases. For companies in difficulty or undergoing restructuring, the age goes up from 56 to 58 this year, to 59 next year and to 60 at the end of 2020.