Belgium: Latest working life developments – Q4 2016

Media and policy debates on the law on ‘workable’ and flexible work, demanding occupations, plus the social partners’ difficulties in reaching a consensus on wage rises are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Belgium in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Law on workable, flexible work

An important topic, which has led to several discussions between policymakers and debates in the popular media, is the proposed law on workable and flexible work. According to Minister of Employment Kris Peeters, legislation improves the flexibility of employers to increase their competitiveness. He says it also helps employees to tailor their work–life balance more easily and allows them to remain active on the labour market for longer. Several measures were proposed; four of them are ready to be implemented by companies if an agreement can be met at both sectoral and company level. Several other measures are still being discussed by unions and employers.

One measure is the annualisation of working time. This means that, if agreed, average working hours will be calculated over a year instead of a week. In practice, this means that employers will be able to ask their employees to increase their working hours in busier periods and to reduce them when less production capacity is needed. However, critics say this measure will benefit employers at the expense of their employees.

Another proposal is an employee working up to 100 hours of overtime in a year if required to do so by the employer. Several experts and unions state this is a violation of the 38-hour working week.

The current system obliges 1.9% of total wages to be invested in training. This will be replaced by a new guideline of five training days, on average, each year for every employee. Sectors are allowed to deviate from this guideline but, if no regulation is proposed by a sector or company, the employee will still be eligible for two training days per year.

Sporadic telework will be included in the legal framework. This will allow employees to work from home in the case of unforeseen circumstances (such as a doctor’s appointment).

Other measures that are still under discussion include career-saving (which makes it possible for employees to save holidays days to use them later in their career) and an improved combination of work and care and flexible working hours.

Demanding occupations

The change in retirement age, also related to this law, has been very widely discussed. The government has announced the retirement age will be raised to 67 years-old by 2030, with the eligible age for early retirement increasing to 63 by 2019. However, there is an exception for people in ‘demanding occupations’, who will still be able to retire earlier than most other workers. Minister of Pensions, Daniel Bacquelaine, has defined the factors for such an occupation:

  • stressful working conditions because of either mental, emotional or physical issues;
  • stressful work organisation;
  • increased safety risks.

Both the opposition political parties and the trade unions are disgruntled by the fact that very few employees in the private sector will benefit from this measure, because the benefits accruing from it take into account only the years worked after 2019, when the system is to be introduced. For example, a mason who retires in 2029 will receive benefits only for 10 years; the amount of years worked before 2019 is irrelevant.

Interprofessional agreement

In mid-November 2016, negotiations began on the twice-yearly wage agreements. The interprofessional agreement between unions and employers settles the wage and employment conditions for employees in the private sector.

After the revision of the 1996 wage law, negotiators, apart from looking at the rise in wages in neighbouring countries, now also have to consider past developments in wages. This has squeezed the margins for negotiations between the social partners, because more external factors have to be considered. The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV), in particular, has criticised this. It wants guarantees that the measures taken will produce extra jobs, increase purchasing power and improve working conditions for employees. The Central Economic Council initially calculated that wages would be able to rise between 0.9% and 1.2% in 2017–2018. However, due to a sudden spike in inflation, it seems that only a maximum of 0.9% will be possible. Trade unions are critical of the sudden change and will continue to adhere to the previous maximum margin of 1.2%. Employers, however, want to continue negotiations with the margin of 0.9%. Both parties are still far from reaching a consensus.

Commentary

Most of these discussions are continuing (and will possibly do so for quite some time), without a clear idea of when agreements will be reached. However, in contrast with several other European countries, the Belgian system of social dialogue remains robust, with both parties succeeding in making compromises.

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