Aanhef van het Sociaal Pact.

Opening of the Social Pact, 1944 | Brussels, National Archives of Belgium, archief VBO 1394

Power & Resistance
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The Social Pact

Social Security and the Welfare State

On 20 April 1944, while the war was still raging, a number of trades union leaders and employers signed the ‘Preliminary Draft Declaration on Social Solidarity’. The proposals in that document, better known as the Social Pact, brought about a radical change in society.

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Before 1940 employees had limited social protection. Trades unions and employers’ organisations could not agree on its extent. But the compulsory measures of the Nazi occupier and the radicalisation of the workers’ movement during the war brought them closer together.

In 1941 a few employers and heads of trades unions started negotiating. The result was the Social Pact. In it they agreed to set up a permanent consultation system between trades unions and employers’ organisations, and to build up a strong system of social security.

After the liberation the Socialist Minister of Labour and Social Affairs did not let the grass grow under his feet. On the basis of the agreement reached he drafted a bill introducing social security. In the following decades the Social Pact acquired an almost mythical status, as the foundation of the welfare stateafter English welfare: supplementary payments. .

Staking Aalst.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo003470

Women workers block the factory gate of the sewing yarn factory Filature et Filteries Réunies in Aalst during the general strike of 1936. By withholding their labour for weeks on end, employees were able to force employers to concede, for example, one week’s paid leave.

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Social Security and the Welfare State

At the end of the 19th century, thanks to the struggle of the workers’ movement the first forms of social protection emerged. Unemployment funds, health insurance and pension funds had to insure workers against unemployment, sickness and old age. They were mostly voluntary insurance schemes and employers seldom contributed. The initiatives did, however, often enjoy the support of local or national government.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s unemployment was on a huge scale. In the West many people had a growing conviction that stronger social protection was necessary. In Belgium the Social Pact of 1944 was the springboard to help accomplish this.

Immediately after the war there was for (almost) all employees compulsory insurance against sickness, injury and unemployment, together with systems for pensions and child benefit. Both employees and employers paid contributions towards these. The government controlled and subsidised the system. Trades unions, health insurance schemes and child benefit funds dealt with the payments.

Social security was not perfect. The self-employed and some employees were at first excluded. Young people and women often lost out. The system was based mainly on full-time working, adult, male breadwinners. Still, social security formed the basis of the postwar welfare state.

Focal points


Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven

From 1960 on, interprofessional agreements provided new social advantages. Rerum Novarum procession of the Christian workers’ movement in Antwerp, 1962.

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Trades Unions and Employers Become Social Partners

Even before the Second World War workers and servants were no longer powerless in dealing with their employers. Thanks to their great following and successful strikes the Socialist and Christian trades unions had won recognition as representatives of employees. From 1919 on, for example, there were in a number of economic sectors joint committees in which trades unions and employers negotiated on wages and working conditions.

But except in a number of large companies the trades unions had little input. For that reason ‘class struggle’ remained more important than consultation. Better social conditions were won by employees through action. The general strike of 1936, which went on for weeks, secured, for example, the first legally binding paid holiday of six days per year.

The Social Pact heralded change. Discussion on an equal footing between employees and employers must become the norm. New laws enshrined that principle in official consultative bodies, from the national Central Economic Council, through joint committees per industrial sector, to works councils in larger companies. Strikes were still not ruled out, but the expectation was that cooperation would be more important than strife.

The fact that the consultation system worked well for the next few decades, was closely connected with postwar economic growth and the rise in productivity. The numbers of social conflicts declined. From 1960 on trades unions and employers entered into interprofessional agreements, in which for all employees in the private sector a basic package of social benefits was agreed.

Sociaal overleg 1998.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo023944, Dieter Telemans/rights SOFAM Belgium

The Flemish social partners (trades unions and employers) in discussion with the Flemish government, 1998.

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Current Challenges for the Welfare State

Even today social security and social consultation determine society to a great extent. But both also face great challenges.

From the 1970s on economic crises complicated the financing of social security. High unemployment levels produced less income and higher expenditure. Employers became less keen on contributing to a system with one of the highest wage costs in Europe. For them international competitiveness became more important than productivity. Some employers even questioned social consultation: they no longer believed in great agreements between trades unions and employers’ organisations.

Moreover, society itself was changing. After the Second World War thanks to a babyboom there was no shortage of labour and ‘full employment’ was a policy aim. But in the 21st century the babyboomersthe two decades after the Second World War had a high birth rate, hence babyboom. retired and there were less younger people to take their place. As a result pension costs rose, while the contributions of new employees fell.

And then there is the awareness that the people who need social security most, often benefit less than those who are already in a stronger position socially and financially, since that last group is quicker to find its way to all kinds of benefits and advantages. New forms of flexible working also give less access to social security. The problems of poverty turn out not to be easy to solve.

Unie van Hand- en Geestesarbeiders.
Brussels, Cegesoma/State Archives

An activity of the Union of Manual and Intellectual Workers. This ‘unified trade union’, which sympathised with the New Order, originated in 1940 under pressure from the occupying authorities. Strikes were forbidden.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo004645, Louis Van Cauwenbergh

The Bruges Socialist Achille van Acker was one of the architects of postwar social security.

Kommunistische Partij.
Brussels, CArCoB fotocollectie

Immediately after the liberation the Communist Party, because of its role in the resistance, was an important political factor in Belgium. The radicalisation of the left helps explain the willingness of the employers to accept the consultation model.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo014888

The counters of the unemployment and strike service of the Socialist trade union in Antwerp, 1920s.

Belga Image, 910316

As a result of the constitutional reforms the social partners also gained a place in the Flemish consultative and advisory structure. In 1985 the Sociaal-Economische Raad van Vlaanderen (Social and Economic Council of Flanders, SERV) was installed.

Discover more on this topic


Bron: VRT archief, KADOC,Smalfilmstudio, Archief Emiel Hendriks – 12 mei 1983

Sociale zekerheid
Histories – Achiel Van Acker , Journaal

Bron: VRT archief, AMSAB – 26 jan 1999


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