Trade unions and unemployed associations defend privacy of jobless
In early 1999, Belgian Members of Parliament amended a government bill so as to limit the right of inspectors from the National Office for Employment to visit the homes of unemployed people and benefit claimants unannounced. The debate gave trade unions an opportunity to express their opposition to discrimination between benefit claimants according to their family situation, and to stress their objective of restoring individual entitlement to these benefits.
Legislation putting into effect the main policy guidelines of the Belgian National Action Plan for employment, in response to the EU Employment Guidelines (EU9810130F), came up for scrutiny before a parliamentary committee in February 1999. A debate on Article 79 of the bill gave rise to a trial of strength between the Ministry of Employment and Labour and certain Members of Parliament (MPs) from both the majority and opposition parties. The latter were supported by the principal trade union confederations, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV).
The introduction of Article 79 would have provided a legal basis for unannounced visits to the homes of recipients of social security benefits (BE9811155F). This measure aroused concern amongst the trade unions and associations representing unemployed people. However, following debate, the bill was amended at the request of the opposing MPs and now allows unannounced visits without a warrant from the courts only under certain conditions.
The unannounced visits debate
The government's bill was aimed at providing a legal basis for unannounced visits by inspectors from the National Office for Employment (Office National de l'Emploi/Rijksdienst voor Arbeidsvoorziening, ONEm/RVA). These visits would have been to the homes of certain unemployed people living alone or heads of lone-parent households whom they suspected of having made a false declaration about their family situation in order to benefit from higher benefits.
Some 40,000 visits of this kind took place in 1997 (according to the ONEm/RVA annual report), and 7,000 led to sanctions being taken. However, these house inspections have often been criticised by trade unions, which have received complaints from unemployed members, and by associations of unemployed people as an illegal invasion of privacy and a "violation of domicile" when they are accompanied, as is sometimes the case, by a search aimed at finding evidence of fraud. In most cases, these inspections take place without a court warrant.
The law provides for these inspections in order to curb clandestine employment, but they have often been used to check the situation of lone parents receiving the maximum benefit as a "head of household". These are often women that the administration suspects of living with another person without declaring it, in order to avoid a reduction in benefits.
The trade unions and unemployed associations believe that the controls would be more effective and show greater respect for privacy if they were carried out by inviting the people concerned into the offices of the administration. This would allow them to present documents demonstrating their family situation (such as receipts for rent, invoices and so on) (BE9804140F). More fundamentally, however, they believe that these checks - which resemble searches without a court-authorised warrant - would not be necessary if entitlements to unemployment benefit were allocated on an individual basis and not linked to the income of the household and to family circumstances.
Controversial benefits system
The Belgian system of unemployment insurance, which awards varying benefits to unemployed people depending on their family circumstances, was challenged in 1978 in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), on the grounds that it contravened the principle of equality between men and women. The system provided for two categories of unemployed people: "heads of household" who could receive benefit for an unlimited period based on 60% of previous pay (up to a ceiling); and cohabitees whose benefits were subject to increasing reductions after the second year. The latter, the majority of whom were women, were therefore penalised.
In 1982 and 1986, two new court cases were initiated on grounds of indirect discrimination and the system was reformed, substituting the term "head of household" with "cohabitee with family responsibilities", and creating two new categories: "single persons;" and "cohabitees without family responsibilities", who live with a person earning income. The terminology was rendered gender-neutral in 1988, but the principle of varying benefits depending on family circumstances was upheld. The maximum benefit remains 60% of previous pay - with a monthly maximum of BEF 34,900 (EUR 844.22) - for those with family responsibilities, and is reduced over time for everyone else. Cohabitees have their benefits cut after a few years to a fixed monthly amount of BEF 13,500 (EUR 327) and may be excluded from claiming long-term unemployment benefit. The ECJ ruled that different treatment for men and women was not discriminatory if that treatment was intended to guarantee a minimum family income, because in its view the benefits were so low that they should be considered as a minimum income.
The effect of these reforms was, on the one hand, to reduce the benefits of these new categories depending on the duration of their unemployment and, on the other hand, to strengthen the system of sanctions - suspension or withdrawal of benefits - for refusing a job or for incorrect declarations. In 1997, 51,007 sanctions were imposed, of which 23,655 were definitive exclusions.
The bill's article on the inspection of homes of unemployed people and benefit claimants was due to be put to the vote towards the end of February 1999.
The substantive reform will be to reverse existing practice by allowing home inspections only in cases where the administration has grounds for suspicion and then only with a warrant from the Employment Tribunal. In other cases, the unemployed person will be invited to the offices of the administration. Paul Blanjean, the official responsible at national level for unemployed workers at CSC/ACV and Michel Nollet, president of FGTB/ABVV, consider that progress has been made with the new draft of the bill. The latter stated that he would not hesitate to call on the trade union representatives who sit on the ONEm joint executive committee to ensure that the rights to information, defence and assistance of unemployed people were respected.
Yet there are still points that remain to be resolved. What might count as grounds for suspicions, and will they still be based on anonymous tip-offs? Will the unemployed person in question be entitled to defence by a trade union representative? Nothing has yet been decided on these points, but MPs close to the trade unions say that they are satisfied, and do not intend to press the matter further. The trade unions remain concerned about the way in which the administration interprets these conditions. (Philippe Dryon and Estelle Krzeslo, Point d'Appui Travail-Emploi-Formation)
Sources: "Vingt années d'évolution de la politique menée en Belgique dans le domaine de l'assurance chômage", L De Lathouwer, Revue belge de la Sécurité sociale, 3-4/1997; "Histoire politique de la Sécurité sociale", E Arcq and P Blaise, Revue belge de la Sécurité sociale, 3/1998.