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Quality in work and employment — Belgium

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The public debate on quality of work came (again) to prominence in Belgium from the mid-90s. It was the Belgian presidency that pushed the issue on the agenda of the European Employment Strategy in 2001. In 2002, the Federal administration published its ‘Belgian report on the quality of work’. However, policy makers use in the country normally a more strict definition of quality of work. It is related to the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of somebody's job (job content, labour conditions, working conditions and social relations) and is not related to the quality performance of the labour market. Very often it is even more restricted to only ‘well-being at work’. Between 2000 and 2005 the issue certainly grew in importance. The appointment in 2003 of a Federal State Secretary for Organisation of Work and Well-being at Work was symbolic in this regard (see also national survey report on the Flemish Workability Monitor, BE060601SD).

On the one hand, new and rising problems of work quality raised these concerns. More and more reports – backed by new scientific research - on mobbing, violence at work and stress-at-work renewed the policy interest. On the other hand, there is the increased awareness in policy circles that a lack of quality jobs impedes further implementation of what is called the active welfare state. Belgium wants to raise its employment rate substantially. Active labour market policies are an important part of this strategy. Partly pushed by the trade unions, the ‘more jobs’ strategy has also been complemented by a ‘better jobs’ strategy. Although an important part of this ‘better jobs’ strategy is focused on making work pay for everybody, it also led to the development of new policies on quality of work (in the strict Belgian sense). It was especially within the debate on active ageing, coming to a policy climax with the conclusion of the Generation Pact at the end of 2005, that the issue raised a lot of attention (be0602304f). People working in so-called ‘heavy’ occupations will still have the opportunity to go easily on early retirement. Other measures to improve the work quality of older workers were also announced. However, the unions still criticise the Federal government, which after the union protest implemented the Generation Pact unilaterally, for having not developed enough policies to improve the job quality of older workers.

Because the active ageing issue is momentarily settled, the ‘good jobs’ question seems to be given less policy or political attention in 2006. Issues related to competitiveness, productivity, labour costs and unemployment are dominating the industrial relations agenda again more strongly. The mentioned State Secretary has been abolished already at a mid-term change of the government in 2004.

Nevertheless, although the topic is not at the core stage of labour policies for the moment, a range of actors (governmental bodies and bipartite projects) are still working in a structural way to improve the quality of work in the country (see next points for examples). Sometimes, these improvements are stimulated by European policies (for example regulating telework). However, although Belgium supports strongly the activities that are taken in this regard at the European level, it sees itself more as a leading country in this policy matter, that wants to show by its reporting at the European level to others how to do it (cf. actions taken under the Belgian Presidency of the European Union). Only the (presumed) better situation and policies of the Nordic countries are really seen as a challenge and an inspiration. Developing new forms of work organisation, combining work and family life and active ageing policies are themes, where Nordic examples are cited as good examples.

2. Career and employment security

The Belgian National Reform Programme identifies six priorities in order to create growth and jobs: the sustainability of public finances; the reduction of labour costs; the creation of a more dynamic labour market, the stimulation of the economy through investment and reforms; strengthening of the social security system; and the search for synergies between environmental protection and growth. As such the Lisbon strategy is used as an additional argumentation to progress the structural reforms of the Belgian economy. The concept of ‘flexicurity’ has attracted only very recently attention, for example by study visits of the employers’ side to Denmark and seminars organised by the social-democratic parties (the Walloon PS and the Flemish SP.A). The following passage from the Belgian National Reform Programme is exemplary in this regard: “Companies must be offered sufficient flexibility in their personnel policy while guaranteeing workers a high level of protection. The amendments to the legislation required to promote 'flexicurity' in Belgium will be examined in the upcoming years …” (p. 28).

Within the ‘flexicurity’ perspective, the policy focus in Belgium has been on creating a closer match between education and the jobs market, providing career support in the event of transition and restructuring; and offering personalised support and training for jobseekers. An important point of conflict between the social partners stays the employment protection legislation. This issue has been raised in an on-going effort to harmonise the different employment statute of blue-collar and white-collar workers in the country. In other words, it is not the type of contract that is a central issue in the ‘flexicurity’ debate, but the employment protection legislation of permanent contracts and specific groups (for example union representatives). Other relevant themes are the right to an unemployment benefit, which is not limited in time (although more and more conditioned by strict rules) and the rules to allow temporary agency work (for example with a liberalisation to a certain extent in the construction sector and with the issue as a pending question in the public sector).

3. Health and well being

As already stated, quality in work is in Belgium mainly perceived as a matter of health, safety and well-being at work. A milestone in this regard has been the Belgian law on ‘well-being at work’ adopted in 1996 and which expanded the responsibility of employers to conduct a prevention and protection policy on health and safety risks to psycho-social risks. Recent focus points in this policy debate have been a new definition of occupational diseases . This change in law introduces the concept of ‘work-related’ diseases. Previously the law spoke about the actual occupational diseases (article 30) and diseases which in a direct and established way are related to exercising a profession (article 30bis). Work-related diseases are diseases, which by accepted medical standards can be jointly caused by exposure to an inherently damaging influence in exercising its profession, an exposure that is greater than the on average exposure in the population, but the exposure doesn’t have to be the main determinant of the disease. This new type of occupational disease can be the basis of an extension of recognised occupational diseases in Belgium as it softens the causality criterium (for example for MSD cases). Continued attention has been given to the problem of accidents-at-work and the health and safety problems of the construction sector and small enterprises.

In 1999 the social partners concluded in Belgium an intersectoral agreement on the management and prevention of work-related stress (Collective Agreement n°72 of the National Labour Council). In 2004 the National Labour Council issued an evaluation report of the implementation. The report concluded that the collective agreement has been an important factor of sensibilisation and provides an industrial relations framework to develop stress prevention programs at company level. Problems are dealt with in a collective way and the initiative comes from the employers’ side. It means that the stress problems are no longer dealt with in a case-related and individual way. Risks of blaming the victim and of collective denial are diminished. However, the report concludes that there is still an important lack of interest at shop floor level to tackle the stress problems.

As already mentioned in the first point, the health of older workers has been seen as an issue in relation to the debate about increasing the effective retirement age. Differences in opinion exist on how this matter is tackled within the Generation Pact. Nevertheless, measures have been taken in recent years to increase the job quality of older workers. An example is the Experience Fund (Ervaringsfonds/Fonds de l’expérience professionelle) that has been set up by the Federal government. The Fund wants to improve the working conditions of older workers on a project basis. Projects are given advice and financial support. The support varies between 4,000 € and 20,000 €.

The problem of mobbing and violence in the working place has only recently been acknowledged as a policy problem. A new law has been introduced in 2002 and strengthened in 2006. This law defines mobbing as “Any illegal and continuous behaviour, outside of or within the company or organisation, that is expressed in conduct, words, threats, actions, gestures or unilateral writings, with the aim or consequence that the personality, dignity, or physical or psychological integrity of an employee (or any person on whom the legislation can be applied), is degraded while executing his/her work, and that his/her position is put in danger or that a threatening, hostile, humiliating or damaging environment is created”. This law is integrated in the general Well-being-at-work legislation, to ensure that this phenomenon receives all the necessary attention. According to this Mobbing legislation, the employer has to take all the necessary measures to protect his employees against all forms of harassment. Besides creating a policy aimed at preventing mobbing and harassment, the employer also has to develop the necessary means to stop mobbing behaviour. Means of service and support have to be developed for the victims. Important tasks are designated to the (general) prevention advisor in the company and a specifically appointed coach or mediator called ‘trust agent’ (vertrouwenspersoon/personne de confiance).

The gender issue receives no strong particular attention in health and safety debates. However, the attention to quality of work matters in health and social work has risen the last 10 years. Health and social work is a sector with a high degree of female employment. An example of this attention is the proxima project.

4. Skills development

The importance of lifelong learning has certainly been recognised by the Belgian partners. Bipartite sector agreements play an important role in the Belgian lifelong learning system. A sector will typically establish a Fund for the management of the financial means (a training fund fee deducted from the gross wage mass). In addition training institutes exist which will organise the practical aspects of planning, organisation, actual training and other activities. However, it has been proven difficult to raise the participation rate in lifelong learning. Unions are blaming the employers not doing enough to raise the learning and training opportunities of their employees.

In recent years, the following measures have been developed and (still) need to be strengthened:

  • 1.9% of the wage costs of enterprises have to be spend on training (this is a confirmed commitment of previous national central agreements);

  • Every year until 2010, 60,000 people more have to be trained. In 2010 1 out of 2 employees has to receive training in the running year.

  • More attention need to be given to diversity management (groups-at-risk are older workers, low-skilled, handicapped and migrant/foreign workers)

  • Mismatch between labour demand and suply has to be tackled more by a stronger cooperation between sectors and employment offices.

  • Optimalisation of training voucher system: workers who wish to improve their qualifications can count on various forms of support, and employers who organise training can receive aid. The regions award training vouchers which businesses (especially small businesses) can use to recover half of the training costs they have incurred. For their part, workers can access a (paid) training leave system, while in Flanders they can also acquire training vouchers themselves. In Brussels, this type of mechanism is accessible to job-seekers who find a job.

Wallonia concentrates its training supply in the competence centres, accessible to businesses, job-seekers and workers, as well as schools. For the sake of consistency, these actions have been coordinated by the public employment service. Flanders is following to a certain extent this strategy. The public employment service is also developing their competence centres. The policy is in this region complemented by the setting-up of a decentralised and subsidised system of career counselling. In both regions, systems are in the phase of operationalisation to formally recognise skills learned-by doing on the job.

Specific measures have been developed to accompany (large) restructuring processes and collective dismissals. Besides improved legislation on the information and consultation of workers’ representatives in the restructuring process, employers are now legally obliged to set up outplacement activities. Employers which hire people that are victim of a restructuring receive a social tax benefit. The benefit is higher when the hired person is older than 45 years. Special funds have been set up to accompany these processes of collective redundancies. Public employment services have been organising special task forces in this regard. These measures are set up to facilitate the restructuring of traditional industries and an improved retention of older workers in the labour market.

As already stated, the government drew up in 2005 a pact on solidarity between generations after a failed consultation with the social partners. After strong trade union pressure, policy initiatives in the ‘Generation pact’ have been strengthened to tackle youth unemployment, including economic incentives for young people who want to combine school with work experience and who follow special training programmes, and early school leavers if they find a job within a certain period of time. The government in Belgium will also encourage young people to become self-employed. Young people will receive counselling and coaching over a period of two years. During this time, they will receive an allowance. If they want to start a business, they can apply for an interest-free loan. In order to promote and enhance the employment of young people, the Flemish Government in Belgium has put aside EUR 8 million for 200 extra ‘start jobs’ for low skilled, unqualified young people and also to promote ‘Alternating Learning’.

5. Work life balance

The employment rate of women with children is 6% lower than for women without children in Belgium. There is a significant relationship of having children and leaving the labour market (lower-skilled women) or taking a part-time job (higher-skilled women). 47% of the workers having a part-time job indicate as reason the combination of work and family life (LFS, 2005). Research shows also that to combine a paid job with rearing children, keeping up with hobbies and coping with domestic tasks still result in many people feeling frustrated due to a lack of time in Belgium (BE0605019I).

To facilitate the work-life balance, Belgium introduced a new system of “time credit’ in 2002 for the private sector. The time credit allows employees:

  • to interrupt their work for a maximum of one year or reduce their hours of work to part-time without breaking the contract of employment and without loss of social security rights. Depending on the collective agreement, the time credit can be extended to a maximum of five years;

  • to reduce their hours of work by one-fifth of working time for a maximum of five years. In practice, this generally means changing from a five-day to a four-day work week;

  • if they are at least 50 years old, to reduce their working hours, over an unlimited period of time, by one-fifth to one-half.

Other measures that haven been taken in recent years are:

  • Extension of the system of parenthood leave;

  • Development and strengthening of a system of ‘service vouchers’ that allow households to hire people legally and at a subsidised wage for assistance in domestic tasks;

  • Strong expansion of child care facilities and after-school nursery.

  • Optimalisation of the regulations on telework (in accordance with the EU-level agreement).

The question of ‘unsocial’ working hours has mainly been raised in connection with a-typical working time regimes (in shifts, at night or on Sundays). Examples of this policy focus are the improved provision of public transport or other means to facilitate home-work traffic and the subsidised (experimental) extension of child care facilities to evening and early morning hours. A ‘strange’ debate has been developed between the social partners and the (Federal) government on the extension of shops’ opening hours on Sundays. The government wanted to liberalise this regulation on Sunday shop openings as part of a policy to stimulate the economy. However, until now the social partners of the distribution sector refused in mutual agreement these proposals. They argue that shops in Belgium have already long opening hours (with already a fixed amount of opening days on Sunday in a year). Unions want to protect Sunday as a free non-shopping day for everybody (http://www.laatonzezondagmetrust.be). Federations of SME’s fear competition of supermarkets to small local shops like a bakery or butcher shop, which are now allowed to open on Sunday. The topic will be back on the agenda at the next round of sectoral collective bargaining in 2007.

Annex – Country data

Place of work and work organisation EU27 BE
q11f. Working at company/organisation premises 72.8 74.8
q11g. Teleworking from home 8.3 14.7
q11j. Dealing directly with people who are not employees (e.g. customers) 62.4 63.4
q11k. Working with computers 45.5 56.1
q11l. Using internet/email for work 36.0 45.8
q20a_a. Short repetitive tasks of <1m 24.7 16.7
q20a_b. Short repetitive tasks of <10m 39.0 25.7
q20b_a. Working at very high speed 59.6 60.5
q20b_b. Working to tight deadlines 61.8 62.1
q21a. Pace of work dependent on colleagues 42.2 41.2
q21b. Pace of work dependent on direct demands from customers, etc. 68.0 69.1
q21c. Pace of work dependent on numerical production/performance targets 42.1 55.3
q21d. Pace of work dependent on automated equipment/machine 18.8 19.0
q21e. Pace of work dependent on boss 35.7 32.6
q22a. Have to interrupt a task in order to take on an unforeseen task 32.7 45.7
q24a. Can choose/change order of tasks 63.4 72.7
q24b. Can choose/change methods of work 66.9 76.3
q24c. Can choose/change speed of work 69.2 72.0
q25a. Can get assistance from colleagues if asked 67.6 67.2
q25b. Can get assistance from superiors/boss if asked 56.1 51.0
q25c. Can get external assistance if asked 31.6 28.8
q25d. Has influence over choice of working partners 24.2 29.0
q25e. Can take break when wishes 44.6 47.4
q25f. Has enough time to get the job done 69.6 61.3
q26a. Task rotation 43.7 46.7
q26b. Teamwork 55.2 60.7
q31. Immediate boss is a woman 24.5 25.3
Job content and training    
q23a. Meeting precise quality standards 74.2 73.3
q23b. Assessing quality of own work 71.8 69.3
q23c. Solving unforeseen problems 80.8 85.7
q23d. Monotonous tasks 42.9 31.4
q23e. Complex tasks 59.4 52.3
q23f. Learning new things 69.1 74.4
q25j. Able to apply own ideas in work 58.4 64.1
q27. Job-skills match: need more training 13.1 11.0
q27. Job-skills match: correspond well 52.3 60.7
q27. Job-skills match: could cope with more demanding duties 34.6 28.2
q28a1. Has undergone paid-for training in previous 12 months 26.1 40.5
Violence, harrassment and discrimination    
q29a. Threats of physical violence 6.0 8.3
q29b. Physical violence from colleagues 1.8 3.4
q29c. Physical violence from other people 4.3 5.2
q29d. Bullying/harassment 5.1 8.5
q29f. Unwanted sexual attention 1.8 1.9
q29g. Age discrimination 2.7 2.9
Physical work factors    
q10a. Vibrations 24.2 18.7
q10b. Noise 30.1 25.2
q10c. High temperatures 24.9 22.9
q10d. Low temperatures 22.0 16.4
q10e. Breathing in smoke, fumes, powder or dust, etc. 19.1 15.0
q10f. Breathing in vapours such as solvents and thinners 11.2 8.8
q10g. Handling chemical substances 14.5 11.9
q10h. Radiation 4.6 3.3
q10i. Tobacco smoke from other people 20.1 18.6
q10j. Infectious materials 9.2 10.9
q11a. Tiring or painful positions 45.5 39.4
q11b. Lifting or moving people 8.1 10.7
q11c. Carrying or moving heavy loads 35.0 30.6
q11d. Standing or walking 72.9 67.1
q11e. Repetitive hand or arm movements 62.3 52.4
q11m. Wearing personal protective clothing or equipment 34.0 28.7
Information and communication    
q30b. Consulted about changes in work organisation, etc. 47.1 57.5
q30c. Subject to regular formal assessment of performance 40.0 43.8
q12. Well-informed about health and safety risks 83.1 79.0
Health    
q32. Consider health or safety at risk because of work 28.6 23.7
q33. Work affects health 35.4 29.0
q33a_a… hearing problems 7.2 4.5
q33a_b... problems with vision 7.8 6.8
q33a_c... skin problems 6.6 4.3
q33a_d… backache 24.7 19.4
q33a_e… headaches 15.5 10.5
q33a_f… stomach ache 5.8 6.7
q33a_g… muscular pains 22.8 17.2
q33a_h… respiratory difficulties 4.7 2.4
q33a_i… heart disease 2.4 0.6
q33a_j...injury(ies) 9.7 6.5
q33a_k...stress 22.3 21.0
q33a_l...overall fatigue 22.5 18.7
q33a_m...sleeping problems 8.7 9.0
q33a_n...allergies 4.0 2.6
q33a_o...anxiety 7.8 6.6
q33a_p... Irritability 10.5 12.1
q35. Able to do same job when 60 58.2 52.3
q34a_d. Absent for health problems in previous year 22.9 28.8
q34b_ef. Average days health-related absence in previous year 4.6 7.0
Work and family life    
q18. Working hours fit family/social commitments well or very well 79.4 83.1
q19. Contacted about work outside normal working hours 22.1 30.9
ef4c. Caring for and educating your children every day for an hour or more 28.8 42.1
ef4d. Cooking and housework 46.4 54.4
Job satisfaction    
q36. Satisfied or very satisfied with working conditions 82.3 89.5
q37a_ef. I might lose my job in the next 6 months 13.7 9.0
q37b_ef. I am well paid for the work I do 43.2 55.1
q37c_ef. My job offers good prospects for career advancement 31.0 34.7
Structure of workforce    
q2d_ef. Seniority (mean years) 9.7 12.0
Working time    
q8a_ef. Mean usual weekly working hours 38.6 37.2
q8b. % usually working five days per week 65.1 61.3
q9a. % with more than one job 6.2 7.2
q13_ef. Daily commuting time (return, in minutes) 41.6 41.1
q14e_ef. Long working days 16.9 17.9
q16a_a. Work same number of hours each day 58.4 52.2
q16a_b. Work same number of days each week 74.0 77.2
q16a_c. Work fixed starting and finishing times 60.7 58.2
q16a_d. Work shifts 17.3 13.2
q17a. % with less flexible schedules 65.3 61.7


Page last updated: 29 June, 2007
About this document
  • ID: BE0612039Q
  • Author: Guy van Guys
  • Institution: HIVA-K.U.Leuven
  • Country: Belgium
  • Language: EN
  • Publication date: 29-06-2007