Higher workload for train conductors and fewer counter clerks. According to the unions, the drive for efficiency on the railways has reached its limit and will culminate in a 48-hour strike from tonight. At the same time, it appears that NMBS employees have to be very careful with what they say.
‘No comment.’ That is the answer of a young train conductor to the question why the railway staff will be off work for two days from tonight. During a previous strike, she testified in De Morgen how she worked seven days in a row without being able to take leave. How colleagues became ill or resigned due to the high workload. But the testimony was not appreciated by the top of the government company.
The woman was reprimanded for tarnishing the railway’s image. With her testimony she is said to have complicated the railway’s recruitment campaign. The NMBS spokesperson maintains that the incident ‘was discussed’, but since then the staff has been frightened. Anyone who does not receive approval from the company must keep their lips tight. A regime that is reminiscent of the controversial code of silence that was previously imposed on the VRT.
That the pot is gradually boiling over is evident from the 48-hour strike that starts today at 10 p.m. The unions ACOD Spoor, ACV Transcom and VSOA will stop work for two days in protest against a number of reforms. One train in two will run between the major cities. Many slow and rush hour trains are being cancelled. And there is more, because on December 5 the unions are again threatening a 48-hour strike.
Already on gums
The reason is two reforms that the management wants to push through. The first concerns the time train conductors are given to prepare for the departure of the train at the start of their shift. Now they have twenty minutes to start up their digital devices, including those for scanning tickets. That time is halved. In addition, certain categories of station staff would be cut, such as substation masters and ticket clerks.
The NMBS wants to better tailor the organization in the stations to the reality of customers, who more often buy their tickets online. “There is no point in people sitting at the counter all day if no tickets are sold there,” the spokesperson said Dimitri Temmerman.
The railway company is thus complying with a requirement from the federal government. At the end of 2022, the Vivaldi government and the railway management signed the new railway management contract. In exchange for a significant budget increase – a record amount of 44 billion euros will flow to the railways in 10 years – NMBS would have to step up its game. Efficiency must increase by almost 5 percent every year.
“The problem is that train conductors are already at their wits’ end,” a 35-year-old train conductor testifies anonymously. ‘Anyone who wants to take more than one week of leave can request this a year in advance via an online system. But even then you’re usually too late. Taking compensation for overtime worked is also almost impossible. That weighs on family life. Several marriages have already ended.’
A look at the figures shows that the railways are in a difficult transition period. The promised investments will largely have to wait until 2025. Until then, the staff has to make do with outdated equipment. For example, trains often have too few wagons because train sets are defective. Sometimes the devices fail to collect payments. Train conductors have to endure the wrath of passengers every time.
“Our people are constantly confronted with material that does not work,” says Günther Blauwens, general secretary of ACOD Spoor. ‘For example, train conductors have a smartwatch to signal the driver that the train may depart. There are known incidents where that signal was given even when they were not ready due to an IT error.’
Although train passengers are the victims, the strikers hope for their understanding. “We also do this for them,” the train conductor emphasizes. ‘Last year there was an announcement that they would close 41 counters. Now they want fewer substation masters. Soon there will only be ghost stations left.’
Bidding between unions
Other interests also play in the background. For example, the unions fear that management has launched an attack on statutory recruitment at the railways. This status comes with all kinds of benefits, such as fixed salary scales and a separate health insurance fund. Train conductors, drivers and other railway positions are normally filled in the articles of association. But what about more general jobs, such as ticket sales?
“The management wants to hire them contractually, while we are pushing for a statute,” says Blauwens. ‘Certainly if the management wants to deploy these staff more and more for the tasks that were previously given to statutory employees.’
The unions are less vocal about the upcoming social elections on the railways, which are traditionally the reason for a bidding war between the railway unions. Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) does not rule out that they play a role in the current actions. “But there are many ways other than strikes to express dissatisfaction,” it said. “We have to move beyond this.”