Gender equality outcomes of a coordinated market economy during European economic integration

How European macro-economic policy shapes Belgian social partners’ (in)action for gender equality

Veronika Lemeire, Hasselt University
Patrizia Zanoni, Hasselt University

This article investigates social partners’ action for gender equality in national industrial relations over six decades of European economic and monetary integration. Theoretically drawing on the gender equality bargaining and the European industrial relations literatures, we analyse the historical evolution of gender equality outcomes of Belgian social dialogue from 1960 to 2018. The empirical study consists of a longitudinal analysis of Belgian intersectoral social dialogue, drawing on multiple data sources including social partners declarations and agreements, a wide range of secondary documents (e.g. trade union documents, European union documents, policy documents), and 17 in-depth expert interviews with trade union and relevant employers’ representatives and public institutional actors.

We identify five periods characterized by distinct kinds of gender equality outcomes: in a first period (1960-1976), as a result of the European Treaty of Rome, equal pay between men and women is gradually recognized as a principle for sectoral and enterprise wage negotiations and in the setting of a gender neutral minimum wage. In a second period (1977-1985), the government unilaterally imposes wage restraint and labour flexibility in the context of the European-wide crisis of Keynesian labour market policy. In a third period (1986-1997), guided by European voluntaristic gender equality programmes, Belgian social partners participate in positive action plans with the aim of promoting women’s employment and introduce a specific contribution to fund flexible child care initiatives. European economic and social policy at the change of the millennium (1998-2008), leads towards the introduction of a range of measures to reconcile work and private life while gender-neutral function classifications are encouraged to combat the gender pay gap. In the last period (2009-2018), under pressure of European austerity that imposes state budget restraint, the previously introduced  reconciliation measure of career breaks is gradually reduced in scope and the consideration for gender equality in social dialogue becomes marginal. In the same period, the Belgian Parliament adopts a law to combat the gender pay gap through intersectoral, sectoral and company social dialogue, though its implementation is undermined by the state imposed wage freeze that aims to restore the competitiveness of the Belgian economy in relation to its neighbour states. Our analysis shows that the gender outcomes of national social dialogue are influenced simultaneously by the European gender equality policy and the European macro-economic policy. In particular, the European shift towards competitive corporatism – concerted wage and labour cost competition between member states -fundamentally conflicts with the goal of gender pay equality, as the negotiated upgrading of women wages to repair institutionalised gender pay inequalities is constrained by wage restraint rules. Our study contributes to the current literature on gender equality bargaining by showing the key role of European economic and monetary integration, as mediated by the state, in determining gender equality outcomes of national bargaining in a coordinated market economy.

Keywords: gender equality bargaining, intersectoral agreements, neoliberal transformation, social dialogue, coordinated market economies, Belgian industrial relations, European integration