Workers rights

Belgium has a strong tradition of social dialogue, in which socialpartners and acknowledged labor and employers’ organisations determine labour policy. The interests and rights of employees are also protected within consultativebodies at different levels or via trade-union organisations active at the level of sector, statute or profession.

Trade unions

All Belgian citizens have the right to join a trade union, regardless of their professional status. In addition, they must not suffer from discrimination in the workplace on account of this trade union membership.

Belgium has three interprofessional trade union organisations, which are recognised on the basis of legally established representativeness criteria:

They are further organised by sector, professional status and/or profession.

Contact

The General Federation of Belgian Labour (ABVV/FGTB):

The General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (ACLVB/CGSLB):

The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV/CSC):

Workers' representation

Belgium has a strong tradition of social dialogue, in which the ‘social partners’ – recognised trade unions and employers’ organisations – determine labour policy autonomously, or at least have an important advisory role.

Social dialogue in Belgium takes place on three levels: the interprofessional level, for example within the National Labour Council, the sectoral level, for example within the joint committees, and the undertaking level.

Within the undertaking, there are several bodies in which social dialogue takes place between the social partners. These are collective bodies, in which an officially recognised and appointed or democratically elected representation of workers consults with the employer or the company management. Apart from specific arrangements for managerial staff, it is always the specified trade unions that take on the role of worker representation. Due to their role, these representatives also have special protection against dismissal.

A works council (OR) is set up in undertakings with 100 workers or more and is renewed in undertakings with 50 workers or more. It is a joint body, including representatives of both the employer and the workers. This consultative body focuses on the economic, financial and work organisation aspects of the undertaking. The OR is kept up to date regarding the financial and economic situation and future of the company by the employer. Within the OR, the employer must also provide information on significant planned changes to the organisation, including of the work. It is also the OR that draws up and amends the working regulations applying within the undertaking.

A committee for prevention and protection at the workplace (CPBW) is set up in undertakings with 50 workers or more in the form of a joint committee. It has an advisory role in relation to the undertaking’s welfare and occupational safety policy. It deals with the following areas:

  • occupational safety,
  • the protection of workers’ health at work,
  • psychosocial stress caused by work,
  • ergonomics,
  • occupational hygiene,
  • the improvement of jobs,
  • the undertaking’s measures relating to the human environment, in terms of their influence on points 1 to 6,
  • the protection of workers from violence, bullying and sexual harassment at work.

The CPBW is involved with the preparation of risk analyses and action plans relating to this policy and monitors the (internal) prevention and protection at work service, which plays a crucial role in drawing up and implementing this policy.

The composition on the workers’ side of both the OR and the CPBW is determined by four-yearly workplace elections, for which the trade unions mentioned above can nominate candidates. For the managerial staff of an undertaking, this is also possible via local candidate lists or via the National Confederation of Managerial Staff (NCK). Both the elected (and thus the effective and deputy workers’ representatives) and the candidates for these elections have special protection from dismissal.

The trade union delegation in an undertaking is set up in accordance with sectoral provisions. Among other things, this body is authorised to take part in negotiations on collective agreements and to assist individual workers in the case of complaints. In the absence of an OR and/or CPBW, the trade union delegation performs the tasks of these bodies.

If an undertaking has neither a CPBW nor a trade union delegation, welfare legislation provides that the workers themselves must have a say in welfare issues. Both the employer and the workers can take initiatives.

Finally, many undertakings operate not only within Belgium but increasingly in an international context. In undertakings with a transnational structure, workers are informed and consulted, inter alia, in the European Works Council. There is also co-determination in undertakings registered as a Societas Europaea and in the context of cross-border mergers.

More information is available on the Social Dialogue page on the website of the FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (in French).

In terms of conflicts at work, it is important to distinguish individual from collective conflicts.

Individual conflicts

If a conflict arises between the employer and an individual worker in relation to the performance of the employment contract or due to the failure to comply with the legal and regulatory obligations imposed on the employer, the worker can refer to the complaints services of one of the three interprofessional trade union organisations: 

For the handling of complaints about the employer’s failure to comply with its legal and regulatory obligations, you can contact the following inspectorates, which are the responsibility of the Minister of Employment: 

  • the General Directorate for Supervision of Welfare at Work, 
  • the General Directorate for Supervision of Social Laws.

You can find all of the contact details and powers of the labour inspectorates in the Inspectorates section on the website of the FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (in French).

If the work dispute cannot be resolved by the intervention of the above organisations or services or it is outside of their competence (for example disputes relating to the end of the employment contract), you can refer it to the labour tribunals listed on the belgian labour courts website - in French.

Collective industrial conflicts

If a conflict arises between workers, whether or not they are organised, and one or more employers, this is known as a collective industrial conflict. This usually relates to conflicts regarding the working conditions of the workers in question. Such a conflict is usually associated with collective action. This is action that exerts pressure on the party on whom the demands are being made. The most common form of collective action on the part of workers is a strike.

Right to strike and social peace

Although there are no legal provisions in Belgium that define the term strike, Belgium has, at national level, ratified the European Social Charter, which includes the right to strike as a fundamental social right. In addition, the right not to perform work on account of a strike has also been recognised by Belgian Supreme Courts (Court of Cassation).

A strike is characterised by the fact that workers temporarily fail to fulfil their contractual obligation to perform work. The failure to perform the stipulated work forms the core of a strike. It is therefore a temporary cessation of work without the intention of resignation on the part of the workers.

Opposing this right to strike, there are also aspects of ‘social peace’ and ‘reconciliation procedures’ in the tradition of Belgian social dialogue.

When concluding collective agreements, the contracting parties undertake to respect the provisions of those agreements during their period of validity and thus to maintain the peace at a social level. The social peace obligation therefore entails that the parties do not undertake any action that goes against the content of the collective agreement during the period in which it is in force. 

However, if there is a conflict, all possible reconciliation procedures should first be exhausted before action can be taken.

The reconciliation office

The reconciliation office can be consulted in the event of collective industrial conflict or the threat of industrial conflict. The reconciliation office has been set up within each joint (sub)committee (the consultative and negotiating body at sectoral level between the officially recognised employers’ organisation and the trade unions). More about those committiees can be found on the website of the FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (in French).

One of the tasks of the joint committees is to prevent or settle collective disputes between employers and workers. This task is carried out by the reconciliation office, which is composed jointly of representatives of the trade unions and employers’ organisations.

If, after hearing the parties concerned, the reconciliation office reaches a unanimous decision in the course of its deliberations, it will communicate this to the opposing parties in the form of a recommendation. Although this recommendation is not binding, it is usually followed by the opposing parties in practice.

Social mediation

In the event of conflict and when all other procedures within the joint committees have stalled, the chair of the reconciliation office, as a social mediator, can make a fresh attempt to bring the parties together.

The social mediator will seek to improve communication between the parties, provide ‘good offices’ and make non-binding proposals to the parties concerned, with a view to resolving the dispute. The social mediator is a civil servant who works for the Federal Public Service for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue. He or she is also chair of joint committees and reconciliation offices, meaning that he/she is excellently placed, as a third, neutral party, to carry out this mediation function with the necessary knowledge of this field.

More information on the Collective industrial conflicts section on the website of the FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (in French).


 

FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue – General Directorate for Collective Labour Relations

FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue – Labour Inspectorate