The supermarket chain Colruyt wants to simplify the wage regimes in the supermarket sector. The company argues that there are now abuses and unfair differences between employees. This is how Colruyt turns out to be an objective ally of the trade unions.
In the wake of the fuss around the privatization of 128 Delhaize stores advocates the Colruyt supermarket group
reforms in the supermarket sector. In a letter to Federal Employment Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne (PS), the company advocates simplifying the system of joint committees and making them more ‘fair’.
In the joint committees, the trade unions and employers determine the wages and working conditions of a specific (sub)sector. The Belgian retail sector has five joint committees. Stores owned by independent entrepreneurs must pay their staff less than stores that operate chains themselves, the so-called ‘integrated stores’. Colruyt describes this as a ‘historically lopsided situation’ that it wants to ‘adjust’.
Fair competitive landscape
Colruyt does not want to eliminate the distinction between the two store types, but does want to reduce the differences. “As a Belgian retailer, we are concerned about the variety of joint committees,” says a written response to De Tijd. ‘It is essential to arrive at a fair competitive landscape of wages and working conditions in which there is room for both formulas.’
Retail companies can split up so that they fall under the joint committee intended for real small self-employed people, such as bakers and butchers.
The current system leads to unfair competition and even abuse, says the listed group. ‘Companies can organize themselves in such a way that they fall under joint committee 201, the joint committee intended for the real small self-employed. They can split up into smaller entities, while in essence they are different shops operated by one entrepreneur.’
However, according to Colruyt, they do not differ in practice from integrated supermarkets, which employ their staff at higher wages and working conditions. ‘That is disadvantageous for the real small self-employed: the baker, the butcher, the small independent shopkeeper, but also for the integrated chains’, writes Colruyt.
Colruyt does not name any names. But it is known that there are entrepreneurs who operate several Carrefour and Albert Heijn stores and place them in separate companies.
In his plea, Colruyt also points to social inequality. Above all, the differences create social incorrectness: employees with the same position and tasks in a supermarket earn up to 400 euros less per month if they belong to joint committee 201 and not to 202 (the joint committee of the integrated stores). The difference amounts to 5,000 euros gross per year. That is difficult to justify.’
The differences create a social incorrectness: employees with the same position and tasks in a supermarket earn up to 5,000 euros gross less per year.
Finally, Colruyt points out that many employees of independent supermarkets do not receive certain benefits that their colleagues in integrated supermarkets enjoy. These include the corona premium, energy premium and the right to training. ‘Smaller companies are often excluded from these measures on the basis of their number of employees.’
Colruyt’s argument resembles that of the trade unions. The ACV advocates one joint committee for the entire sector. The ACLVB wants two joint committees. Colruyt does not give details about exactly how it wants to reform the joint committees.
With its appeal, the supermarket group seems to be mainly aiming for a debate with the trade unions and its competitors. It is they who can adapt the joint committees. In principle, Dermagne can do that too, but then the minister needs the support of the rest of the government. It is doubtful that government parties such as Open VLD and the MR would support a government intervention.
The discussion about the joint committees is important for Colruyt. Due to Delhaize’s decision, Colruyt is saddened to see how its great rival Ahold Delhaize
switches to a cheaper system, which makes Colruyt competitively weaker. Delhaize’s sister chain Albert Heijn is also fully committed to independent stores. Since 2016, the chain has only opened independent stores, so that 48 of the 73 Belgian Albert Heijns are now independent. Carrefour also no longer opens integrated stores and has sold integrated stores to independents in recent years. As a result, 621 of 705 Carrefours are already independent.
Colruyt, together with the ailing Louis Delhaize Group, is the only Belgian supermarket group left. The company from Halle generates the majority of its Belgian supermarket turnover with integrated Colruyt (249 branches), OKay (156) and Bio-Planet (31) stores. The chain also supplies the independent stores of Spar (214), but these are relatively less important for the turnover of the Colruyt group.
The company points to the urgency of its call. ‘If no adjustments are made to the system, the model of integrated trade is in danger of disappearing in the long term.’
- Colruyt is involved in the discussion that erupted after competitor Delhaize’s decision to transfer its stores to independent stores.
- Colruyt wants reforms to be introduced in the supermarket landscape, creating a fairer competitive landscape.
- The unions have previously called for similar reforms.
- Colruyt’s call seems to have given them an objective ally.
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