Flemish tripartite agreement targets young and older workers

The Flemish government and social partners signed a new employment agreement on 17 February 2012, titled ‘Career Agreement’. It focuses on two groups of workers that are currently particularly at risk in the Flemish labour market: young people leaving school without qualifications, and older workers aged 50 and over. The agreement covers incentives for employers to recruit from these groups and also at areas like career guidance and training for workers.

Background

The Career Agreement (397Kb PDF), published by the Flanders Social and Economic Council (SERV), is a recurrent part of the so-called VESOC agreement of 1995. This Flemish social and economic dialogue relates to the areas of employment policy over which the Flemish regional government has authority, within Belgium’s federal structure. When fully operational, it will provide €25m worth of measures to help vulnerable groups in the Flemish labour market.

Careers and competences

The first part of the ‘Career Agreement’ summarises the global vision of the Flemish social partners on career management. They believe labour market policy should have as its starting point a career perspective on individual jobs. Key to this is the development of workers’ skills and competence. Future labour market policies should start with the validation of these competences.

The second part of the agreement develops a range of priorities for action. The partners want to develop policies that will ‘get more people employed in longer careers and in more sustainable jobs’.

The agreement stresses that as far as possible a tailor-made approach is necessary, since not everyone has the same need for measures such as training, upskilling, or tax exemptions from employers.

School leavers without qualifications

One of the agreement’s primary aims is that as many young people as possible should leave full-time education with some kind of qualification or degree. New strategies to achieve this will be developed with the educational sector.

More emphasis will be placed on targeting young people who leave school without a qualification, and employment offices will increase the number of guaranteed work experience places for young people who have no qualifications and have been unemployed for longer than six months.

Durable employment strategies will be developed for young people who keep returning to unemployment after short periods of temporary agency work.

Older workers and active ageing

To increase the employment rate of workers aged 50 or over, the existing 50-plus premium will be amended. Employers who hire older unemployed workers currently receive a premium that varies according to the wage category of the worker. These wage categories will be abolished and replaced by three premium rates that are linked to the employment profile of the hired worker (see Table 1). The premium can be as high as 50% of the gross wage, with the maximum being calculated based on the minimum wage. Part-time work can also be subsidised under this scheme.

Table 1: Revised premium system for hiring unemployed older workers
 

Wage premium paid to employer when hiring

Maximum premium payment

Unemployed, 50–54 years old, less than one year unemployed

30% for one year

€2,644 per quarter

Unemployed, 50–54, more than one year unemployed;

Unemployed, 55 or older and less than two years unemployed

50% for one year

€4,406 per quarter

Unemployed, 55 or older and more than two years unemployed

50% for two years

€4,406 per quarter

Source: VESOC-agreement Career policy, 17 February 2012

In accordance with EU rules, not-for-profit organisations that are more than 50% subsidised by the state in the year before hiring cannot apply for the premium.

Measures geared towards the unemployed will also be extended to older workers above 55. Until the age of 58, they will be offered intensive counselling and coaching where necessary.

Job quality and training

In the agreement, sectoral social dialogue is also encouraged to develop action plans on quality of work, workability and on-the-job training. These action plans are expected to be a form of addendum to existing agreements that sectors have signed with the Flemish Ministry of Employment, to encourage employment of at-risk groups and increase lifelong learning. Social partners are urging the Flemish government to finance these action plans.

Finally, the agreement foresees a revision of the current system of career guidance. Currently, a Flemish worker has the right to receive career guidance counselling once in a six-year period, financed by the European Social Fund. This system and its financing will be revised in the coming months.

Commentary

This employment agreement is an example of multi-level policy practice, which is developing more and more within Belgium’s federal system.

However, although talks had been ongoing since the summer of 2011, this agreement came during a period when unions were rallying at federal level for a general strike to protest against pension reform. This prevented the social partners from reaching an agreement at another level on related topics.

The agreement is important because it adopts a largely positive approach to the two main problems of the Belgian/Flemish labour market: getting older workers to remain active and the employment of unqualified young workers.

Guy Van Gyes, HIVA-KULeuven

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