No tampering with the 38-hour week! Why are the Belgian workers entering a new period of actions and strikes?

The latest blueprint for reform presented by Minister of Employment Peeters is in line with a global offensive on labour led by the European Union. The purpose is to reduce labour costs by lengthening working hours, cutting wages and increasing flexibility. After his attacks on wage indexation, pensions and sick pay, the Minister is now attacking the working-time regulations. What are the measures that are the straw that broke the camel's back, have re-launched social resistance in Belgium and echo the ongoing mobilization in France against, among other things, the reform of the labour code?

45-hour working weeks and 9- to 11-hour working days; facilitation of overtime hours, as well as evening, overnight and weekend work; timetables determined 24 hours in advance; temporary work as the only career prospects ... If the reform presented by Minister of Employment Kris Peeters (CD&V) is passed, the everyday life of workers is going to be impacted. Decoding, with first-hand accounts by those who are already experiencing the poor working conditions Peeters wants to generalize.

The annualisation of working time

Nowadays, you are submitted to a 38-hour working week in many sectors and enterprises. Under certain strict conditions to be negotiated with the trade unions, your boss may ask you to work extra hours. This is called “overtime”. He has to pay extra money for these hours (this is called “extra pay”). Moreover, he has to grant you a compensatory rest period in case certain limits are exceeded. In such case, you “reclaim” your overtime.

Such reclaim system is based on the assumption that working too much is bad for the health. As soon as a certain limit is exceeded, the worker must be entitled to take rest. Stretching the boundaries is just what this government is bent on doing.

Tomorrow, your working time will be calculated on a yearly basis. This is what is called “annualisation”. In concrete terms, as long as you work a 40-hour week on average over a period of one year, your boss will not have to grant you any compensatory rest. He will be allowed, for instance, to have you work 45 hours a week for a period of six months, and 31 hours a week for the remaining six months. You will indeed have worked 38 hours a week on average. In the construction business, it means working a lot in the warmer months and staying home in January. In the retail sector, taking annual leave will be difficult during the July sales period. On the other hand, there will be more holidays in March or October, when children are at school and cannot go on holiday.

Your boss will even be allowed to get you to work an additional 143 hours, i.e. above the present average (91 hours so far), before having to grant you a compensatory rest period. This corresponds to 17 extra days worked over a period of one year.

100 hours overtime: working more for ... working more

The government has also set up a brand new system of overtime, above and beyond the systems already in place. What is it all about?

The new system gives bosses the right to negotiate a package of 100 hours overtime (extendable to 360 hours depending on the sectors or enterprises) with each one of their workers, separately. Such overtime may be worked at any time, as long as the working day does not exceed 11 hours and the working week does not exceed 50 hours. In concrete terms, this means that, with 100 hours overtime, the boss is given the opportunity to have you work 12 days more a year. 360 hours will give him the opportunity to have you work 45 hours a week throughout the year.

Negotiating overtime with your employer, on your own

Contrary to the present system, this new system does not necessitate any motivation or justification on the part of the employer.

At the present time, a boss must indeed provide reasons why he is asking you to work overtime (for instance an unusually heavy workload).  And this should meet the criteria established in the legislation. Moreover, at the present time he must get approval from both the union delegation and the social laws inspection service, which are entitled to reject the introduction of extra hours if they consider the employer's motivations unjustified. There is nothing like that here.

The trade union is completely set aside. You are facing your employer on your own in order to negotiate such a time package. There is not even any need to leave a written record.  A simple oral agreement is sufficient.

And the icing on the cake for employers is that such overtime does not have to be “reclaimed”. It will be either be paid directly or accumulated in a “career account” that is used to store overtime or days off “to be taken later on”.

A timetable determined 24 hours in advance

In addition to those measures, the government is bent on having the trade unions negotiate a series of measures concerning specific categories of workers.

Today, there are 800,000 part-time workers in Belgium. Many of them work with a flexible timetable that may vary from one week to the other. Their work schedule must be communicated to them at least five days in advance, and the days and hours of work are agreed upon in the contract or the terms of employment. Compensation is foreseen for the hours that exceed the expected working hours.

The reform will allow employers to inform you of your work schedule 24 hours in advance, not to specify the working hours and working days in the contract, and to discontinue the extra pay in many cases of excess time. This means establishing the so-called “zero-hour contract” that will mostly affect women. Women like Sophie.

Temporary employment for an indefinite period

In 2015, about 100,000 temporary workers were working full time. That is a record. Kris Peeters wants to facilitate temporary employment and turn it into a fixed system. The idea would be to put in place some sort of permanent contract with the temporary employment agency that will deploy the workers in the enterprises.

Temporary workers who sign such a contract will be trapped into modern-day slavery. They will not be allowed to refuse a job, under penalty of termination for breach of contract and, as a result, will lose all rights to unemployment benefits. The minister further makes it clear that such workers will be ineligible for economic unemployment in case of a reduction of activity. Moreover, workers will be tossed into complete uncertainty as regards their pay in case of a complete lack of work. This type of contract also constitutes a potential threat to the normal contract. The temporary work agencies will increasingly operate as outsourced external human resources offices, where workers can be hired and fired at will.

Last but not least, these contracts are a threat to labour rights. Indeed, both the bosses and the government are demanding that temporary workers be allowed to work in the event of a strike. “Production, turnover and profit margins need to be increased while costs need to be decreased.” This is how Kris Peeters is pursuing his case for reform. To put it plainly, everything should be done for the benefit of large corporations, with the workers having to comply at all cost. This is exactly what his reform is about. But workers are worth more than that.

Sidelining the trade unions

Various measures concerning labour reform imply that negotiations between the workers and the boss will be carried out on an individual basis and no longer through collective agreements or agreements negotiated with the trade unions. It is a fact, however, that a worker taken individually and his boss are not equal when it comes to negotiation. All the more so when 600,000 unemployed workers are waiting for a job. Individual negotiations with a boss also trigger competitive relations among colleagues (competition between those who accept overtime, between those who are given overtime, etc.). Such types of relationships prevailed in the 19th century, prior to the development of the organized labour moment. Collective organization of the workers in trade unions has made it possible for them to secure many rights.... the very rights this government is now tearing apart: unemployment compensation, pensions, paid leave, 8-hour working day...

In order to quash these gains, both government and management are also determined to quash what has made such achievements possible. This is why trade unions are being sidelined as much as possible, by defining a legal framework that is as wide and as flexible as possible, in order to push negotiations to the lowest possible level: from the sector to the corporation and, finally, the individual worker.