The art of being unemployed: soft focus guaranteed

Several recent cases where sculptors, a novelist and a musician have all lost their unemployment benefits because they went on practising their art have highlighted the fact that regulations governing unemployed artists in Belgium are becoming both more blurred and more stringent.

The status of unemployed artists is governed by vague regulations in Belgium, and their application is a matter for the judgment of the relevant regional director of the National Employment Service (Office National de l'Emploi- ONEm). ONEm is a public institution administered on a joint basis by representatives of employers and trade unions.

Shows, exhibitions and publications are automatically considered as periods of work and, even if the artist has not earned a penny, he or she is deprived of some benefits. Between two contracts, they cannot paint, sculpt, rehearse or write, as those occupations are considered as an economic activity. When ONEm decides that artists' contracts are becoming "too regular", they risk losing their right to unemployment benefits.

When Jean-Paul Lebens, a musician, became unemployed, he pointed out to ONEm that, to be known, he had to accept every offer of a concert. He was told that there was no problem, as long as he reported the number of days he had worked. A few months later, another ONEm official considered that his occupation as a "session man" was incompatible with the status of unemployed person. He was then given a penalty, and had to repay 150,000 BEF of "wrongfully" received benefits.

When she still had a job, Pascale Fonteneau wrote her first novel, which was published in the Série Noire series. She then became unemployed, but no one in ONEm could tell her precisely whether, with her royalties, she was entitled to keep her full benefits. She wrote at night, "when the children were in bed". Her second novel then came out. ONEm has now condemned Ms Fonteneau to pay back 150,000 BEF of benefits "wrongfully" received, because even if her writings had not been published, she ought to have informed ONEm of her literary activity.

The sculptors "Guido' and Lu" went on sculpting while unemployed. They took part in two non-commercial exhibitions and sold one work for 9,500 BEF. They committed a multiple offence: they were condemned to pay back 75,000 BEF of benefits "wrongfully" received and further punished by four weeks of exclusion (a loss of 44,000 BEF). In an appeal judgment, the Labour Court found against ONEm, declaring that there was no intention of "repeated occupational activity".

The duty of an unemployed person is actively to seek a job. However, the paradox is that lack of activity means a loss of experience and the lack of experience (and training) is one of the main causes of unemployment. The intricacy of the rules and the strict and inconsistent way in which they are enforced sometimes verge on the absurd.

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