Belgium: A short analysis of ‘Peeters law’

A law proposed by Kris Peeters, the Minister of Employment, Economy and Consumers, has been met with mixed reactions by the social partners. The law, adopted by the Chamber of Representatives in February, aims to allow more flexibility in work organisation in order to modernise the Belgian labour market and to increase the country’s competitiveness.

Background

Since taking power in October 2014, the Belgian government has tried to develop a more modern way of organising work and strengthening the national economy. The Minister of Employment, Economy and Consumers, Kris Peeters of the Christian Democratic and Flemish Party (CD&V), has proposed several measures that directly concern flexibility and work organisation. This has created tensions between the different social partners, leading to strikes and delayed negotiations. The House of Representatives has passed the bill containing these measures, which is a considerable step forward in the legislative process. However, repercussions are expected over the level of work organisation and the level of social conflict.

This article explains the origins of the bill, the reaction to it from the social partners and the forthcoming steps in the legislative procedure.

Origins of the draft law

Belgium’s federal government was formed in October 2014 from strongly liberal political parties. In November 2014, the government published a general policy note on employment (PDF) containing most of the measures that it wants to implement during its four-year term. Point 8 of this note contains specific actions to modernise the labour market. It emphasises the importance of flexibility and organisation, saying:

Labour law is now not only a law that protects the weaker party in the working relationship, it must also enable companies to remain competitive in order to guarantee jobs and to give workers, not only acceptable working conditions, but also the possibility to ensure the roles they have to play in society, most specifically those related to the family. Labour law must also adapt to social and technological changes in order to keep pace with the actual organisation of work. We must think of other models of work organisation. Companies may need to adapt their work organisation to new developments or new fluctuations in the economic context. In searching for new ways of relaxing work organisation, an important role will be given to social partners. They will thus be consulted on these developments.

Two important points are made here:

  • the government’s ambition to modernise work organisation in order to improve the economic performance of companies and the well-being of workers
  • the important role given to social partners in this particular process.

In June 2015, Kris Peeters invited the different social partners to a round-table debate on work-related topics, including the possibility for workers to reorganise their schedules to improve their work–life balance. However, the unions did not welcome this move, asking instead that these discussions take place within the framework of an interprofessional agreement. Negotiations were thus postponed.

Outline of ‘Peeters law’

During 2016, ‘Peeters law’ started gaining more media coverage. This led the Minister to publish a statement to clarify the draft legislation, which he called a ‘bill on feasible and manageable work’. This document contained the various announced measures that make up the bill and affect work organisation. It set out to clarify the Minister’s propositions to try to avoid confusion between social partners. The measures are in two parts:

  • ‘the base’, which contains actions to be directly applied to companies
  • ‘the menu’, which contains a series of actions; these can only be activated by the sectors themselves through a collective labour agreement.

The base

These measures will be applicable as soon as the law is voted through in a plenary session of the Parliament.

Annualisation of work time: It will be possible to calculate the average weekly working time over a one-year period. In this framework, during certain periods, it will be possible to work up to 9 hours per day and 45 hours per week at most, provided that these hours are compensated for during the periods in which the worker works less. However, this flexibility is limited. A worker must never work more than 143 hours above the average working time. The system of extra pay is maintained.

100 voluntary and paid additional hours: Workers can have a bank of 100 extra hours that they can use as voluntary work with the employer’s permission. These hours are considered as extra pay.

Training: Workers are entitled to five days of training, on average, per full-time equivalent post per year. The new system provides for the option to organise training either at sectoral level, or at company level through the creation of an individual training account. If neither of these options is available, the worker has the right to claim two days of training per full-time equivalent post per year.

Occasional home-working: The bill also asks for a legal framework on occasional home-working.

The menu

These measures will not apply directly to companies when the bill is passed; they must be approved and negotiated at sectoral level through a collective labour agreement.

Global reform of work time: A collective labour agreement may allow social partners to derogate from the normal limits of work time. Absolute limits are maintained to 11 hours per day and 50 hours per week. The start of a night shift may be postponed from 20.00 to 22.00.

Change in work schedules: All time schedules will have to be registered in the labour regulation. If different time schedules are applicable, the labour regulation must also provide for detailed rules for switching from one work schedule to the other.

Plus Minus Conto (a system which allows for variations in working time): A collective labour agreement may allow sectors competing at international level to spread the calculation of the average 38-hour working time over several years.

Temporary employment for an indefinite period: This measures seeks to give greater security to temporary agency workers. Temporary workers will also earn a salary from the temporary employment agency while between jobs.

Reform of the employers’ grouping plan: Small companies will be allowed to hire a worker jointly. This is an opportunity for companies who cannot afford, by themselves, to hire a worker. It is also an innovative way of creating jobs.

Simplification of part-time work: The obligation to register all work schedules in the labour regulation will be relaxed in order to facilitate administration. For workers with varying work schedules, the warning deadline is maintained at five days, but might be extended or reduced, solely through a collective labour agreement struck between social partners. Some documents may soon be conserved through digital channels.

Career savings: Workers will be allowed to bank time (for example, by saving unused holidays). If a worker changes jobs and cannot keep this time, they may opt for a cash payment instead.

Adaptation of leave plans: Leave for palliative care is extended to a maximum of three months. The time credit for care is also extended to three months.

Floating schedules: A legal framework for floating schedules will allow workers themselves to fix the dates for the beginning and the end of the delivery of work, within certain limits.

Donation of days off: It will be possible for workers to give a certain number of days off to a co-worker whose child is critically ill, but only those over and above the annual statutory days.

Concertation and unions’ reactions

A group of 10 social partners began work on this bill on 29 August. The group is headed by the president of the Federation of Belgian Companies (FEB/VBO).

On the employers’ side are:

  • two representatives of the FEB/VBO
  • two representatives of the Middle Class Union (UCM)
  • one representative of the Farmers’ Union (Boerenbond).

On the unions’ side are:

  • the President and the Secretary General of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB)
  • the President and the Secretary General of the Confederation of Christian Unions (CSC/ACV)
  • the president of the General Headquarters of Belgian Liberal Unions (CGSLB/ACLVB).

The group negotiates interprofessional agreements every two years and is also dedicated to creating and maintaining contact between the government and the social partners.

The group was optimistic about quickly reaching an agreement. And indeed an interprofessional agreement for 2017–2018 was concluded on 2 February 2017. This stipulates that a concertation on work–life balance must be organised before 30 June in order to discuss more flexible work organisation.

Union reactions to these measures seem to have softened over the past few years. 2014 was an extremely intense year for social conflict, with 760,297 working days lost per 1,000 employees due to strikes.

This is mostly explained by a strong reaction to the shift from a more left-centre government to a liberal government. Measures such as flexibilisation or annualisation of working hours were seen as a way to reinforce the employer’s position and weaken the worker’s position.

Jeunes CSC, a union representing workers under 35 years of age and affiliated to CSC/ACV, is particularly reluctant to accept the bill as it expects the measures to make working conditions worse for young people.

Both sides consider that the bill will affect work–life balance but, as the government expects an increasing focus on work–life balance, many union representatives expect actions such as the annualisation of working hours to worsen workers’ work–life balance (for example, in relation to leave, picking children up after school and having hobbies). The other sticking point concerns the actual creation of jobs for the country, as the unions believe that increasing flexibility makes it harder to create jobs.

Adoption of the bill and the next steps

After a few amendments, the bill was adopted (PDF) by the Social Commission of the Chamber of Representatives on 2 February 2017 and is slowly progressing on its path to enactment. The opposition has asked the State Council to give an opinion on the text. This has caused a delay in  the final adoption of the law, which will occur during a plenary session.

Although there seems to be less reaction from social partners than in past years, some social actors have attacked the bill. The League of Families, for example, is afraid that instead of helping families with children have a better work–life balance, it could actually make it harder for them to organise their schedules. Crèches are not as flexible as employers, and the time credit for care may reinforce inequalities between men and women (men accumulate them in order to retire earlier, while women use them for family-related tasks).

Commentary

This article stresses the important changes that will affect work organisation in Belgium in the next two years. It will be important to keep an eye on this subject, especially because most of these measures must be activated at a sectoral level. Many agreements, conflicts and transformations can be anticipated for 2017–2018.

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