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‘Wider than Delhaize’: Entire Belgian supermarket sector plans to join strike efforts

09:01 28/03/2023

A strike notice has been filed by multiple unions representing the entire food retail sector, with workers saying that the problem of franchising is "a wider trend" than just Delhaize and they want to "send a clear signal".

Trade unions ACV Puls and CGSLB have issued a strike notice for the entire retail sector for 17 April, just a few weeks before the start of social dialogue in the sector.

“On that day, there will certainly be action,” said ACV Puls general coordinator Kristel Van Damme.

Depending on the results of that social dialogue, more actions could follow. A dozen Mestdagh/Intermarché shops were already closed on Friday morning.

The primary concern for unions is that grocery stores that switch to a franchise model may be doing so in order to change the contract status of workers from that of full-time employees entitled to social rights and benefits, to independent contractors without those labour protections.

ACV Puls in particular wants a single status for all workers in the sector, advocating the maintenance of the Joint Committee 202, the most favourable collective bargaining agreement in the retail trade.

“Wages in the sector are already low,” said Van Damme. "It’s not too much to ask that everyone gets a fair wage. We hope to reach a good agreement, but we fear that the negotiations will not be easy.”

Delhaize workers went on strike earlier in the month following the announcement that all its stores would switch to a franchise model of independent ownership.

Many stores remain closed and distribution centres were blocked at times to prevent deliveries from reaching those that were still open.

A recent blockade of a distribution centre in Zellik was lifted after threats of arrests, but not before its effects were felt – many supermarkets were missing products over the weekend, especially fresh produce.

A Delhaize spokesperson confirmed that the company decided to "intervene", and a union source told papers that those on strike were threatened by police with administrative arrests for their action.

Two people were placed under administrative arrest after police said the atmosphere at the blockade became "more threatening".

“It was necessary to intervene in order to guarantee the distribution in the shops,” said Delhaize spokesperson Roel Dekelver.

In the meantime, the strikes by shop staff continue. Of the 128 company-owned shops, 96 were closed over the weekend, including all of the stores in Brussels and all but one in Wallonia. In Flanders, about half of the shops remain closed.

Meetings have taken place between union and management, but no common ground has been found and some say the rift between the two has only deepened.

“The dialogue seems to have broken down,” said Evelyne Zabus of the CNE union, adding that management had “sunk into a monologue” that was blocking any possibility of discussion: “The ball is now in the management's court.”

Written by Helen Lyons