Belgian trade unions cast a critical eye on government’s SDG plans

Belgian trade unions hosted an event to examine the working methodology used to deliver the country’s 2023 Voluntary National Review (VNR). Unions expressed their concerns over inadequate consultation timeframes, Belgium’s imprecise national plan to achieve the SDGs, and fears of restricted bargaining spaces for unions and economic limitations affecting their ability to fully engage in this process.

The three Belgian trade unions (ABVV-FGTB, ACV-CSC and ACLVB-CGSLB) held the workshop on 19 October 2023 in Brussels as part of the 6th edition of the Belgium SDG Forum. During the event, trade unions discussed their shadow report of the Belgian government’s 2023 VNR, and assessed how the Belgian government had engaged them, as representative stakeholders, in the VNR process.

Overall, participants agreed that while the 2023 VNR represented a slight improvement in comparison to the first version presented in 2017, there remained significant room for improvement. Union representatives expressed dissatisfaction with the exclusion of crucial trade union input from the report, aside from the VNR’s chapter on civil society.

“Although the introduction of the VNR clearly states that trade unions were involved in parts of the process, the reality is that the timing was not well planned for adequate consultation,” said a union representative at the event.

Additionally, unions raised concerns that, midway toward the end of the 2030 Agenda, trade unions’ SDG priorities are unlikely to be reached, as the country has failed to prepare a time-bound and efficient national plan to achieve the SDGs, as well as allocate the necessary budget.

On the role that trade unions could play across the VNR process, the three organisations acknowledged that there is a clear attempt to reduce trade unions’ bargaining space. This increasing threat is being exerted either through legal means, as in the case of Belgian law which now limits wage bargaining on the pretext of competitiveness or through economic policy, in the event of deliberate degrowth, as raised by some speakers at the Forum’s plenary session.

An essential part of the workshop was dedicated to a panel discussion on Belgium’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda, with particularly focus on the country’s external and domestic policies in favour of key SDGs from trade union perspectives.

Thematic priorities and instruments

Trade unions also voiced concerns over the extent to which policy makers would address their organisations’ core issues, such as formalising the informal economy, tackling in-work poverty, addressing just transition, and ensuring that anti-discrimination policies do not only respond to the needs of already privileged social groups, but also address the concerns of those from disadvantaged groups.

Regarding the available tools and instruments, unions highlighted their concerns on issues relevant to three main topics and called for:

  • Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) mechanisms that focus on ecological aspects but also on social and fiscal matters. Moreover, HRDD must not remain a ‘public relations’ exercise for companies, private consultants, certification agencies, foundations and associations.
  • Enhanced social safeguards in public instruments used to support the investments of development banks and agencies abroad, whether in the form of subsidies, loans and guarantees.
  • Trade treaties to include enforceable social clauses that support the respect of ILO Standards, these being essential means to fight large-scale structural social dumping.

Regional and global level

A panel discussion was organised with expert speakers from the ITUC and the ETUC about the state of play of SDG implementation at the international and European levels.
Through their Timefor8 campaign, the international trade union movement strongly advocates for acknowledging the transformative role that SDG8 plays in advancing the entire 2030 Agenda. Goal 8 focuses on economic growth, productive and inclusive growth, and decent work.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) shared insights on the European Union’s first VNR and the trade union report titled “Halfway to 2030: a trade union take on the EU and SDGs”. ETUC stressed that EU recognition of the urgency of securing investments in quality jobs, enhancing working and living conditions, ensuring higher pay, bolstering high-quality public services, and backing collective bargaining was of utmost importance. These steps are crucial in laying a fairer foundation for our economy and society and fall under SDG8. Furthermore, the ETUC representative warned against new post-Covid austerity measures, which, they said, would impact both the EU and its member states’ capacity to fulfill national commitments to the 2030 Agenda.

Despite the challenges outlined, Belgian trade unions reaffirmed their commitment to contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. They confirmed they would continue to monitor progress and leverage their influence to ensure Belgium’s SDG implementation plans reflected workers’ priorities.

Find more information regarding the efforts of trade unions to support workers’ rights in Belgium and their representation within the context of the 2030 Agenda on the ITUC website and its Global Rights Index. Additionally, the online media Equal Times offers comprehensive coverage, shedding light on the ever-evolving dynamics of workers’ rights in Belgium and worldwide.