Flexible career options introduced in the Flemish not-for-profit sector

In late October 2000, a deal was reached between the Flemish Minister of Employment, trade unions and employers' organisations on the implementation of an earlier agreement covering employees in the not-for-profit sector (welfare, healthcare and social-cultural activities). There will now be regulations on the introduction of a number of schemes allowing employees to take periods of time off (eg for family care purposes or sabbaticals), and on allowing older workers to move to part-time work. The aim is to give employees the flexibility to reconcile their work and family lives.

In late October 2000, the Flemish minister of employment, Renaat Landuyt (of the Socialist Party), reached an agreement with employers' and employees' organisations on the practical implementation of an agreement for the not-for-profit (also known as "social profit") sector - welfare, healthcare and socio-cultural activities - that was concluded by the parties in March 2000.

The March "Flemish preliminary intersectoral agreement for the social profit sector 2000-5" (Vlaams Intersectoraal Voorakkoord voor de Social Profitsector 2000-5) applies to employees in those parts of the not-for-profit sector that are subsidised by the Flemish regional government. Only after long and difficult negotiations was a compromise reached that was considered to be positive by all parties. The Flemish government finally agreed to demands to reduce working hours towards the end of workers' careers, while the trade unions concerned, the Belgian Union of White-Collar Staff, Technicians and Managers (Bond der Bedienden, Technici en Kaders van België, BBTK) and the National Federation of White-Collar Workers (Landelijke Bedienden Centrale Christian, LBC) dropped their demand for an additional pay increase. The employers' organisations asked for and obtained more money for employee training. The March agreement represents a clear recognition of employees' problems in the not-for-profit sector: low pay, "bogus" employment statuses, high pressure of work and "burnout". The need to increase the attractiveness of professions in the non-profit sector in order to guarantee an adequate inflow of qualified people lay at the basis of the agreement.

Federal and Flemish agreements for not-for-profit sector

The Flemish agreement for the not-for-profit sector was modelled on the federal agreement for the sector, concluded on 1 March 2000 (BE0003305F). The federal agreement was seen by the trade unions as being extremely positive, and they therefore considered a similar agreement for the Flemish sector as desirable.

Separate federal and Flemish agreements have been concluded because the competences of the various levels of government are divided. The federal agreement was concluded with the national government and is applicable to all employees of those parts of the not-for-profit sector that are subsidised by this level of government: hospitals, rest homes, homes for the elderly, home nursing and rehabilitation centres. The Flemish agreement is applicable to the personnel of those parts of the not-for-profit sector that are subsidised by the Flemish government, including: day care centres, the social-cultural sector, institutions and services for people with disabilities, "social" enterprises, welfare work centres and community work centres.

Flexible career formulae

The March Flemish agreement set the objective of achieving a better combination of work and family life in the sector. In order to achieve this policy objective, Minister Landuyt, in consultation with the employer and employee organisations, produced a draft order at the end of October to enable the introduction of "care credits", "career credits" and so-called "landing strips" in the social profit sector as of 1 January 2001:

  • the care credit is to enable employees who have a very sick child or family member to take care leave for a maximum period of one year without having to give up their job. In practice, they will be able to take a full-time or part-time career break in which the existing federal allowance of BEF 20,400 will be supplemented by a monthly Flemish incentive allowance of BEF 17,000 (for a full-time career break). The care credit can also be taken in the form of parental leave. Both men and women are thereby given the opportunity to take a career break for three months with an increased monthly allowance. Women can also use this arrangement to extend their maternity leave;
  • the newly introduced career credit, of a maximum of one year, is built up during an employee's career in the not-for-profit sector. It can be taken according to personal preference - for example, in the form of a sabbatical year - providing entitlement to a full-time career break. A Flemish incentive allowance of BEF 17,000 per month is provided, as with the care credit. The combined allowances (federal and Flemish) must enable the employees concerned to have a reasonable income if they decide to interrupt their career; and
  • employees aged over 50 who have worked at least 20 years in the sector are given the opportunity to take a part-time "landing strip" (landingsbaan) - ie the opportunity to switch to a part-time job with the guarantee of a reasonable income. For these employees, there is a monthly incentive allowance of BEF 15,000. It is hoped that this measure will help to end the early outflow of older employees that is causing a loss of experience from the sector.

These measures are grafted onto existing systems, which makes their application flexible. The basis is provided by the current career-break system. By widening the existing system of incentive allowances, the desire is to give employees in the Flemish not-for-profit sector a real opportunity to achieve a better combination between work and family life.

Forthcoming measures.

In addition to the arrangements regarding a better alignment of family and work life, the March agreement in principle also provides for the following:

  • wage harmonisation. Based on the principle of equal pay for equal work, pay is now linked to the wage conditions agreed by the joint committee for education and accommodation institutions (no. 319.01). Parts of the sector that already have more favourable conditions than these will maintain them;
  • continual training. Measures have been agreed to make training more attractive for both higher and lower qualified staff;
  • general reduction of working time. Working time will be reduced in stages for all older employees (from the age of 45 years), with full pay preserved;
  • regularisation of subsidised status. Employees in subsidised employment programmes will be given a full contract of employment; and
  • job creation. An extra budget of BEF 1 billion is provided for the creation of new jobs, with the family care and rest home sector having priority.

The implementation of the measures laid down in the Flemish intersectoral agreement for the not-for-profit sector is spread over the duration of the agreement (2000-5). For example, wage harmonisation will be carried out in stages. In the meantime, the employers' and employees' organisations will sit down at the negotiating table in the various joint committees in order to convert the remaining items of the agreement into collective agreements. Later on, the government will check whether these collective agreements fall within the bounds of the provisions and budgets set in the intersectoral agreement.

Commentary

The revision of careers in the non-profit sector provided for by the recent agreement is based on a "post-modern" perspective on the work-family relationship. The basis is the view that not only must employees' requirements for flexibility be satisfied, but also that employers have to make an effort to adapt the pattern of work to the pattern of family life. Hence, efforts are being made to introduce flexibility to the benefit of the employee; in the past, it was the flexibility requirements of the employer that were mainly taken into account and this, together with continual efficiency increases, meant that the reconciliation of work and family life started to become more difficult. The desire is to counter this through the introduction of the various time-off credits.

A qualitative interpretation of the March 2000 preliminary agreement indicates that it can be assumed that the desire is to proceed increasingly on the basis of the individual desires of the employee, and that general, "linear" measures are gradually losing importance. Employees must be able individually to choose from a series of measures and instruments in order to shape their own professional career and work and family relationship. The introduction of "family-friendly" career formulae in the Flemish non-profit sector is of a ground-breaking nature. It is expected that other sectors will gradually go in the same direction. (Jürgen Oste – TESA/VUB)

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