Social partners respond to criticism of low employment rate for older workers

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In September 1999, the European Commission's review of Member States' employment policies drew attention to Belgium's low rate of employment among workers aged over 55. This view has been supported by the FEB/VBO employers' organisation, but challenged by the FGTB/ABVV trade union confederation.

In its draft Joint Employment Report, published in early September 1999 (EU9909187F), the European Commission reviewed Member States' employment policies. The document noted the low participation of older workers in the labour market in Belgium, stating that, at 22%, the employment rate of those aged over 55 years is the lowest in the European Union. The Commission also expressed its disapproval of an excessive use of early retirement.

Michel Jadot, secretary general at the Ministry of Labour sought to balance the Commission's judgment by stating that: "the particularly low employment rate among older workers is a fact. But there is an explanation. Originally, early retirement was intended as an accompanying social measure in a series of company reorganisations. Today it can be asked whether we still see the situation in the same way. The [Commission's] comment is therefore also addressed to the social partners."

The Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO) is in full agreement with the Commission on the question of re-examining early retirement. Tony Vandeputte, FEB/VBO managing director, pointed out that "when, in intersectoral negotiations at the end of 1998 [BE9811252F] FEB-VBO suggested raising the early retirement age, trade unions refused. We remain in favour of a later early retirement age." More generally, FEB/VBO is asking that "leaving work be made less attractive". In order to achieve this, employers are demanding that older unemployed people again be considered as job-seekers and that their higher benefits be reviewed.

By contrast, for the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgische Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV), early retirement schemes - and it is pointed out that their age limits have been raised - have been obtained by trade unions as a means of making room for younger workers, or to prevent their dismissal, while giving older workers, some of whom have been worn out by arduous working conditions, an acceptable social status. For the union confederation, as long as there is industrial restructuring, early retirement will remain "a lesser evil". If the government were to introduce a policy to raise the employment rates of the over 50s, there must be no coercion from the National Office for Employment (Office National de l'Emploi/Rijksdienst voor Arbeidsvoorziening, ONEm/RVA), the agency which administers unemployment insurance. On the other hand, FGTB/ABVV wants firms to respect legal measures prohibiting age discrimination against older workers in recruitment, as well as accompanying social measures for older workers and workers who have taken early retirement who want to take up jobs again.

Meanwhile, the Central Economic Council (Conseil Central de l'Economie/Centrale Raad voor het Bedrijfsleven), a body made up of of representatives of employers and trade unions, has published a report examining employment rates according to levels of training. It says that low-qualified workers over 50 have a low rate of employment. However, the rate for higher-qualified older workers is higher than in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

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