Parental leave enters Belgian law thanks to Europe

Belgium has implemented the EU Directive on parental leave through a national collective agreement, which comes into effect in 1998.

On 14 December 1995, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) signed a European framework agreement allowing employees to take parental leave. Since this agreement was not itself binding on Member States, an EU Directive - which had to be incorporated into the national legislation of every Member State - was adopted in June 1996 formalising the scheme. In Belgium's case, this took place in April 1997 through a collective agreement negotiated in the National Labour Council for all private-sector employees, which comes into effect in 1998.

As a result, there will henceforth be a right to parental leave in Belgium. In concrete terms, the collective agreement stipulates that both the father and the mother have a right to three months' leave on the birth or adoption of a child. This right applies until the child reaches the age of four. During this period of leave, the employment contract is suspended, unless other arrangements have been made: for example, the leave can be taken in stages, or converted into a system of reduced working hours.

A procedure has been worked out to guarantee the right to parental leave. For example, employees must submit their application for parental leave three months in advance, indicating the preferred formula and the starting and finishing date. Employers and employees must sign an agreement on this within a month. If this is not possible, the employment contract is suspended for three months from the commencement date requested by the employee. In exceptional cases, the employer can request a delay in the commencement of the parental leave, giving reasons for the request. Such reasons might be the impossibility of finding a replacement, seasonal work, the fact that the employee fulfills a strategic function, too many employees wishing to take parental leave and so on. Such postponement can under no circumstances lead to loss of the right to parental leave, however. Another rule is that the employee may return to his or her post or an equivalent position once the period of leave has ended - and the latter can of course form a real barrier for the employee in question.

Several aspects have yet to be fully regulated and require additional agreements at national, sector or company level. There is for example no obligation to replace the employee taking parental leave. In addition, the National Labour Council is urging that the period of parental leave be equated with days actually worked for the purpose of social security benefits. The Ministry of Employment is also advised to pay extra benefit to the parent in question in order to compensate for the loss of wages.

At company level, rules could be agreed for the practical organisation and procedures relating to parental leave. These agreements could be reached in the works council, with trade union representatives or with individual employees.

In companies or sectors where more favourable schemes already apply, - for instance, the right of all employees to parental leave - the existing scheme will be retained.

This collective agreement represents another step towards a closer alignment of work and family. Above all it is hoped that there will be an increased participation by men in the new system. To encourage this, parental leave may not be transferred from a man to his spouse.

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