Social partners give the green light to ‘ecocheques’

On 20 February 2009, the National Labour Council concluded a collective agreement on introducing ecocheques. The ecocheque is a wage premium, under certain conditions with social tax exemptions, focusing on environmentally-friendly and sustainable – so-called ‘green’ –consumer goods. The new system as well as an increase in the value of employees’ lunch vouchers are part of a broader plan to relaunch the country’s economy and maintain workers’ purchasing power.

The basis for the collective agreement on ecocheques is the 2009–2010 intersectoral agreement which the social partners concluded on 22 December 2008 against the background of the current global economic crisis (BE0901019I).

A net benefit

The purpose of this agreement is to contribute actively to raising the awareness of and accessibility to ecological products, as well as to grant an additional ‘net benefit’ to employees. Other wage premiums that can also be considered as a ‘net benefit’ for employees include voucher systems for lunches, sports activities and cultural events.

The new voucher system of ecocheques will be exempted under certain conditions, by virtue of a Royal Decree, from social security contributions. Moreover, ecocheques can, from a fiscal point of view, be considered as a social advantage since, in principle, they will be exempt from tax.

List of ‘green’ products

The collective agreement No. 98 on ecocheques (in French, 85Kb PDF) outlines on the basis of a restricted list which type of ecological products and services can be purchased with these vouchers. This list is set up around five ecological objectives and includes a great number of products achieving these goals:

  • energy saving – insulation products for buildings, electricity-saving light bulbs, as well as products working on solar energy or on manually produced energy;
  • water saving – water-saving shower heads, recuperation tanks for rainwater and accessories for water saving on taps;
  • sustainable mobility – the installation of soot filters in diesel passenger cars manufactured before 2005, eco-driving lessons, as well as travel tickets for public transport (with the exception of subscriptions);
  • waste management – paper that is 100% recycled and not bleached or bleached using a totally chlorine-free (TFC) bleaching process, synthetic products completely made of compostable materials meeting the national standard NBN EN 13432;
  • environment – purchase of sustainably exploited wood, trees and outside plants, and non-motorised garden tools.

The agreement also regulates the dissemination of information to employees and the method for calculating the number of ecocheques that may be granted to each employee.

On 6 March 2009, the federal government adopted a Royal Decree to fully implement the system.

Increase in value of lunch vouchers

The lunch voucher system is the best-known and most widely used wage premium in Belgium. These vouchers are exempt from social security contributions and tax, provided that certain conditions are met. Therefore, when negotiating the provisions of the 2009–2010 intersectoral agreement, the social partners (and the government) included an increase in the value of lunch vouchers among their measures to support economic recovery and restore consumer confidence.

Part of economic stimulus measures

The 2009–2010 intersectoral agreement gives employers the possibility to grant every employee a net advantage of €125 in 2009, which will increase to €250 in 2010. This advantage can take the shape of an increase in the employers’ contribution to employees’ social benefits such as lunch vouchers.

As of 1 January 2009 retroactively, the maximum employer contribution increases from €4.91 to €5.91 per lunch voucher, without affecting employees’ contributions, which still amount to €1.09. This brings the maximum value of the lunch voucher to €7. The higher value lunch voucher remains exempted from social security contributions and taxes, as long as the conditions of this exemption are fulfilled as outlined below. The legislator has now taken the necessary measures in this regard.

On the other hand, the government announced that the employer could fiscally deduct €1 per lunch voucher, regardless of whether or not employers have increased their contribution to the voucher.

Lunch voucher system

Lunch vouchers can be used for buying food in shops or paying meals in restaurants across the country. Employers who make use of this system order the lunch vouchers for their employees on a monthly basis. Two important distributors of lunch vouchers are present in Belgium: Sodexo and Accor Services. Both the employer and the employee pay for the vouchers. In most cases, the employee contribution is settled through the payroll, by deducting the contribution from the employee’s net salary.

Conditions of exemption from contributions and tax

Lunch vouchers are exempt from social security and tax, provided that the following conditions are met:

  • the granting of lunch vouchers must be stipulated in a collective agreement or in a written individual agreement between the employer and the employee;
  • the number of lunch vouchers provided must be equal to the number of days actually worked by the employee;
  • lunch vouchers should be in the recipient’s name;
  • it must state on the lunch vouchers that they can only be used to purchase meals or food; the vouchers can only be valid for three months;
  • from 1 January 2009, employers contribute up to €5.91 per voucher, while employees contribute a minimum of €1.09;
  • the vouchers may not be granted as a replacement or conversion for salary, premiums or any other existing advantage.

All of these conditions must be fulfilled cumulatively.

Commentary

In theory, the lunch vouchers like the newly introduced ecocheque system have to be considered as a bonus from the employer. In practice, however, these wage premiums are used in the collective bargaining process to counter trade union wage demands in an indirect way by allowing these ‘soft’ wage increases. They are considered to be ‘soft’ increases because they cost the employer less than a straightforward gross wage increase, since employers do not have to pay tax on these vouchers as they have to on labour costs.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute of Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven (KUL)

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