Social resentment has been rearing its ugly head at diamond grader HRD Antwerp for the past few days. At stake: the correct payment of the severance pay of some older employees, now that the company wants to create a pool of younger candidates. The trade unions made a counterproposal to douse the fire.
There has not been much cheerful news in recent years at HRD Antwerp, subsidiary of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC). The lab, which inspects diamonds and issues certificates for clarity, color and cut quality, was once the crown jewel of the Antwerp diamond industry. Bad management and overconfidence ushered in the decline of the past decade. The workforce shrank dramatically. “Down to about 60 today,” says Wannes Gielis, secretary of union ACV-Transcom. In its heyday, the lab had 270 employees.
For sale and then again not for sale
In late 2019, experienced manager Ellen Joncheere was brought in after the heavily loss-making HRD Antwerp was put up for sale by AWDC. However, AWDC withdrew the sale and Joncheere worked out a restructuring plan. But then came corona: the entire diamond trade virtually fell flat. In three moves, 27 workers lost their jobs in 2020. Due to lack of funds, a limited number of clerks had to serve out their notice period and could not be paid all at once. Periods of technical unemployment pushed the notice even more significantly.
Today, things are looking rosier in the diamond world. In the past year, the total turnover of rough and polished diamonds in Antwerp even surpassed the precorona year 2019. At HRD Antwerp they are also feeling the turnaround. Last week it became known that the company is issuing an ‘open vacancy’ to create a recruitment reserve with suitable candidates (graders) to examine diamonds. “We are not going to recruit immediately, but want to act proactively, so that we can recruit if necessary“, it said.
That news fell badly with the older white-collar workers in notice. ACV secretary Yves Toutenel: “The frustration is understandable. It concerns four white-collar workers. During the pandemic they were put on technical unemployment. The notice period is thus deferred. The management proposed to let them work until December 2022, after which they no longer had to perform. But: they had to give up a chunk of their severance pay (about eight months in some cases). That point is a problem anyway. You can’t go back to receiving unemployment benefits then.”
Meanwhile, unions and management sat down together. Wannes Gielis (ACV): “We have made a counterproposal. We want the best possible solution. After all, there are people among them with careers of almost 40 years.” The proposal amounts to paying the severance pay in full, with exemption from benefits from 2023. Toutenel and Gielis are not dismissing the idea of a recruitment reserve, by the way. On the contrary. “In itself this is positive, now that the sector is doing better economically. Because the terminated employees would also prefer to retire at the end of 2022, HRD has no choice but to create a ‘pool’ of suitable candidates.”
Management will respond to the union proposal in late February.