Agreement on outplacement for older workers

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In July 2002, the Belgian social partners on the National Labour Council concluded a collective agreement laying down the rules for a right to outplacement assistance for workers over the age of 45 who lose their jobs. The agreement, which implements earlier legislation on this issue, comes into force in September 2002.

In a law of 5 September 2001 aimed at improving employment rates, the federal government foresaw a right to an 'outplacement' (reclassement professionnel) procedure for workers aged 45 and older who are made redundant. For this new right to become effective, trade union and employers' representatives needed to conclude a national collective agreement in the National Labour Council (Conseil National du Travail/Nationaal Arbeidsraad, CCT/NAR). Such agreements may subsequently be made obligatory by royal decree. The CCT/NAR concluded the relevant agreement, No.82, on 10 July 2002 and the government has since enacted it. The agreement lays down the rules applying to the outplacement procedure and will enter into force on 15 September 2002.

The right to an outplacement procedure will be granted to all workers who are dismissed by their employer, provided they are at least 45 years of age and have worked with the company for a continuous period of one year. However, this right does not apply if the worker has been dismissed for serious misconduct or in cases of early retirement. The new agreement defines the outplacement procedure as a set of services and follow-up advice (psychological guidance, drawing up a personal 'balance sheet', elaborating a 'job-seeker′s plan' etc) to be provided on an individual basis or to groups by a third party (the service provider) at the expense of the employer. The aim is to help workers who lose their job to find new employment as soon as possible or to become self-employed.

The outplacement procedure can last up to 12 months, during which the worker concerned can receive up to 60 hours of assistance, to be spread over three successive phases of two, four and six months respectively, each containing one block of 20 hours of assistance.

At the end of the first and the second phase, the client - ie the worker - must submit a request in order to obtain the outplacement services during the next phase. This is regarded by employers as a way of monitoring the interest and willingness of workers throughout the procedure. It was the wish of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO) that the outplacement agreement should not only grant rights to workers but also impose obligations.

The cost of the outplacement service is to be met by the employer that dismissed the employee. In addition, the agreement offers a possibility for sectoral joint committees to spread outplacement costs across a whole industry through a sectoral mechanism. If an employer fails to provide for an outplacement procedure, its will be obliged to transfer a EUR 1,500 fee to a public fund that will organise outplacement services for the worker concerned. Under no circumstances can the provision of an outplacement procedure prejudice the provisions of the legislation on employment contracts with respect to dismissal (eg payments for notice periods) or any dismissal payments granted by sectoral collective agreements.

The outplacement service provider contracted by the employer may be a public or private agency specialising in this area. As such, the provider is obliged to subscribe to an insurance policy covering work accidents.

The Employment Minister, Laurette Onkelinx, believes that some 35,000 people a year will benefit from this new outplacement procedure for dismissed workers over the age of 45. She nonetheless hopes that this measure will encourage employers not to dispose of their most experienced workers and will thus contribute to a higher employment rate among older workers (the Belgian rate is currently far lower than the average in Europe - BE9909183N).

Specialised outplacement agencies are somewhat hesitant about this new measure. Some fear that the EUR 1,500 fee for outplacement mentioned in the national agreement (for employers failing to provide outplacement) may incite employers to drop outplacement assignments already contracted out at a higher cost. Others feel that the 60 hours of assistance for each employee will not suffice to provide a high-quality service.

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