New legislation on temporary agency work

New labour force regulations in Belgium have given employers the freedom to use temporary agency work as a legitimate recruitment channel for new employees. The new legislation is a response to calls from both employers and unions for clarification and the social partners had already signed a collective agreement on the issue in July 2013. In practice, many companies were already using agency work as a recruitment channel but it is hoped the new rules will prevent abuse of the system.

Background

New legislation is being introduced in Belgium which allows employers to use the hiring of temporary agency workers as a legitimate route to full-time employment. Belgium already has one of the most carefully regulated labour markets offering a high level of protection to temporary workers.

Temporary agency work in Belgium is a method of supplying companies with experienced staff who are officially employed by the temporary work agency but work for a third party, the client-employer. Although temporary agency workers are not hired directly by the company for which they work, they do have the same rights to wages, working time, insurance cover for workplace accidents and social security benefits as company employees.

Why agency workers are used

The temporary agency work sector has its own joint committee, JC 322. This brings together representatives of the temporary work agencies (Federgon) and user companies in the form of the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB–VBO). Also represented are the trade unions, the National Confederation for Employees (LBC–NVK), the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB-ACLVB) and the Belgian Union of White-Collar Staff, Technicians and Managers (BBTK-SETCA). In 2012, Federgon and the Federal Administration of Employment, Work and Social Dialogue estimated that Belgium had around 380,000 agency workers.

The three legitimate reasons allowed in law for businesses to take on agency workers are:

  • to stand in for an absent employee;
  • to cope with a sudden increase of workload;
  • exceptional cases, such as urgent machinery repairs.

Agency work as a recruitment tool

In practice, a lot of businesses in Belgium have used temporary agency contracts as a recruitment channel, with the agency period serving as a probation period. Since 1 September 2013, this use of agency workers has been included in the list of legitimate reasons.

Negotiations over this adaptation of the regulations have lasted some time. Changes to the legislation on agency work have been on the political agenda since 2004.

Federgon says that almost 48% of agency workers regard their agency contracts as an opportunity to land a permanent position.

Trade unions have expressed concern that the new rules might lead to agency jobs displacing permanent contracts. In July 2013, the Collective Labour Agreement 105 (in French, 203 KB PDF) was concluded between the social partners at the National Labour Council, making it possible for legislation regulating the issue to be adopted.

In order to prevent abuse, businesses recruiting via temporary agency work have to fulfil some extra conditions as outlined below:

  • a maximum of three consecutive temporary agency contracts are allowed for each vacancy;
  • each contract must last for a minimum of a week and a maximum of six months;
  • if a temporary worker is recruited, they must be given a permanent contract and the temporary period counts towards their seniority calculations;
  • if a trial period precedes recruitment, any temporary period of employment has to be counted as part of it.

Other changes

As well as making agency work a legitimate recruitment tool, a number of other legal changes have been made.

Consecutive daily contracts are no longer accepted, unless the nature of the job can justify this practice – such as in the hotel and catering sector by the coast, where activities might be weather-sensitive. This compromise should allow the necessary flexibility for the employer without allowing the improper use of consecutive daily contracts.

Every six months under the new rules, the employer must inform the works council, the union delegation or the sectoral Fund for Social Security on the number of agency workers it employs, their working hours, and the reasons for their employment on temporary contracts.

The bargaining partners also agreed to changes to the ‘48-hour regulation’. This set a time limit of two working days after an employee’s arrival in the workplace for a labour agreement to be signed. In order to avoid abuse, a working agreement must now be signed before a worker starts a job.

The work agencies Randstad and Adecco said they were pleased with the changes. But they stressed that attention should be paid to the European Directive 2008/104/EC on temporary agency work (59 KB PDF). Among other things, this directive calls for temporary agency work to be allowed in the public sector, which is not currently the case in Belgium.

Survey on working conditions

The socialist union FGTB-ABVV commissioned research into the working conditions of temporary agency workers in Belgium. A survey was carried out by the Centre for Sociological Research (KU Leuven) and the Metices Centre (ULB) for labour, research and training.

It found that temporary agency workers often have long-term assignments, but this is not always reflected in long-term contracts. Although 53% of agency workers had stayed with a company for longer than six months, 65% had weekly contracts.

The survey also found that 63% of agency workers were only told of a new assignment one to five days before it began. Confirmation that a contract would be renewed was given to 49% of agency workers just one to three days before the start of the new contract. This creates wage and job insecurity and practical difficulties for workers who need to arrange childcare or transport.

Almost 20% of agency workers surveyed had received their labour contracts after the old 48-hour deadline, and 43% had received renewed contracts after the deadline. Half said they had carried on working despite being ill, and half of this number said they had done this because they were worried about losing their job.

On a positive note, 41% of respondents said they had received job-related training.

Caroline Vermandere, HIVA KU Leuven

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