Working time in the European Union: Belgium

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 15 November 2009

Guy Van Gyes

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

The aim is to obtain a fuller insight into differences in working time across the European Union and into developments in average hours worked both in total and by specific sections of the work force in different Member States over recent years. The concern is to investigate the factors underlying the changes that are observed in the survey data collected and, in particular, how terms and conditions of employment are changing in relation to working time. In general, data refers to the working time of those in employment.

The national contributions collects data inter alia from; firstly the EU Labour Force Survey which covers average hours worked by men and women employees both overall and in part-time and full-time jobs, the proportion of men and women in part-time jobs and the relative number of men and women employed under different arrangements as regards working time. Secondly, from the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey conducted by the European Foundation which covers other aspects of working time, including the number of days worked per week, evening, night and weekend working, the organisation of working time, the proportion of people with second jobs, the time spent commuting as well as on unpaid work.

These data are intended to form the basis of the replies to the questions asked but other relevant data have been used where available to supplement these.

Duration of work

Average weekly hours

Does the evidence from the above surveys, and other sources, indicate that, over the past five or ten years, employees are working fewer hours in your country?

No, the figures point mainly to a stabilising situation (especially when one takes conjuncture effects into account).

Working time reduction (counted on a yearly basis) has occurred in Belgium mainly in the 80s. The minor changes afterwards are the result of the following (compensating) effects:

  • Increase of part-time work (downward effect on average weekly hours)

  • Rise of the weekly working hours of part-time workers

  • Stable or slight increase of the working hours of full-time workers.

In other words the downward effect of rising part-time work is neutralised by the upward effect of slightly longer working hours by part-timers and full-time workers. On average a part-time job in Belgium counts for about 60% of a full-time job. This percentage is much higher than in many other countries. The average weekly working hours of Belgian part-time workers belongs to the highest in Europe.

Is there evidence that any such decline in average working time is due more to compositional changes (e.g. more women entering the labour market and working part-time) than to an across-the-board reduction in hours?

More women are entering the labour market and are very often working part-time. However, the duration of the part-time work is on the increase. The average weekly working hours of Belgian (female) part-time workers belongs to the highest in Europe.

Is there evidence that any fall in average hours over these periods may be due to a reduction in the number of people working very long hours – over 48 per week? Is there evidence that this has been due, to any extent, to the adoption of the EU working time Directive?

On both questions the answer is no. In general, we see a rise in the standard deviation of the average weekly working time of Belgian workers. This increasing standard deviation pinpoints to a growing diversity of the working time arrangements. Nevertheless, the large majority of the full-time employees work usually between 36 and 40 hours on average (as a result of the Belgian working time regulations, which are far stricter than the EU Directive in this regard).

Annual hours worked

To what extent is the notion of annual working time (calculated to take account of annual holidays, including public holidays, as well as average weekly hours) in common use in political or everyday discussion, or in social partner negotiations?

Annualisation of working time is not common in the every day discussion. People count most of the time in ‘weekly working hours’. In these situations were people have a flexible working time schedule, they most of the time count their working hours additionally by trimester or semester.

However, in regulating the working time, this annualisation is an important factor. The general conventionally agreed working time in Belgium is 38 hours per week. However, a lot of alternatives are possible by collective agreement. Annualisation of working time to regulate these alternatives is a common practice. A lot of the sector agreements, which specify the working time, use besides an average weekly working time, also annual hours worked as indicator. For example, many workers still work 40 hours per week, which are compensated by days off on an annual basis. A new trend in this discussion is to expand this ‘aggregation’ over more than one year. The trigger to this new discussion came from the automobile industry. Social partners in this sector want to adapt the working time and performed labour volume to the production cycle of a car model (usually 3 to 4 years with a peak after 1 or 2 years).

Is there any evidence that the number of weeks worked per year has declined over the past five or ten years due to increased holidays, or time off for other purposes?

No. To illustrate: politicians want to introduce on a legal basis a regional holiday (especially in the Flemish region, July 11 as feast of the Flemish community). However, the new holiday would replace another. The debate, initiated by employers’ organisations and neo-liberal politicians, focus much more on longer working hours and facilitating weekend work or making overtime more financially attractive.

Days of work per week

Is the five-day week the predominant norm, as opposed to other patterns – four days, four and a half-days, five and a half-days, six days?

Five-day working week is the predominant norm. Part-time work is organised by working every day less hours or very often also getting off Wednesday afternoon (when the schools are closed) or having the Friday off. In companies or organisations, where the working time is less than 38 hours, Friday afternoon is an important moment to plan this reduction.

Working only a few days a week is only a type of arrangement existing in health and social work (hospitals) or where people only work in a specific type of shift work (for example long weekend shifts, existing in the petrochemical industry or some public services like the fire or police departments)

Are there any obvious trends in this respect – for example, to reduce the number of days worked per week, but to increase the number of hours worked each day?

No major trend. The expansion of these types of working time arrangements started already in the 80s

Full-time and part-time working

Has part-time working grown relative to full-time working over the past five or ten years?


Are there major gender differences in the patterns of part-time working?

Yes, still mainly a female pattern. Four out of ten (41%) female workers have a part-time job in Belgium (LFS 2006), compared to 7% for men.

Does the government encourage part-time working, either ‘passively’ (i.e. through the workings of social security or taxation rules) or ‘actively’ (e.g. in the sense of particular incentives being offered)?

Yes. Part-time work is actively stimulated within a program of ‘career breaks’ to facilitate the combination of work and family life.

The career break scheme was introduced by the Belgian government in 1985. The basic principle behind it was to enable all employees to take a break or reduce their working hours for a certain period of time in agreement with their employer and on condition that their position be filled by an unemployed person during their absence. The main aim was to create a redistributive effect on the labour market. A further aim was to encourage a better work-life balance. In 1994, the Flemish government decided to reinforce the scheme by granting every Flemish worker taking a career break under the national scheme an extra incentive premium. In 2002, the career break scheme was reviewed by the Belgian federal government. The obligation to replace a worker on leave was no longer a priority in labour market terms and therefore abolished thus leaving a better work-life balance the key aim of the measure.

In this general system of time credit (tijdskrediet/crédit-temps), the employees can take a complete interruption, a half time reduction or a one-fifth reduction. The complete interruption and the half time reduction apply for one year, extendible to five years by collective agreement. The one-fifth reduction applies for five years in general and without any restriction for employees aged 50 and over. Women aged up to 50 are the main consumers for the time credit facilities and the reduction of the working hours is a much used form. The one-fifth reduction of working hours for employees aged 50 and over, however, is also popular with men. Given the unlimited duration for employees aged 50 and over, this particular system can be seen as a part-time early retirement scheme aiming to alleviate the end of a career.

In 2006 more than 210,000 workers were involved in a system of ‘career break’, in which the participant receives a particular financial incentive as a compensation for the loss of income. 90% of these ‘career breakers’ opted for a reduction of the working time and not a full-time career break.

Collective bargaining

What are the main working time concerns and priorities of trade unions in collective bargaining?

Working time is of course a key topic of trade union activity in Belgium. Survey results learn that the issue is always in the top 3 of issues dealt with by trade union representations at company level. This situation is caused by the way working time is regulated in Belgium. On the one hand the country has a very strict working time regulation; on the other hand a lot of alternatives are possible when they are negotiated at the sector and/or workplace level. Keeping this negotiated, consensus-based status of working time arrangements is as a result probably the key concern and priority of the unions. Social dialogue has to rule working time arrangements.

Besides this basic principle, the period when unions were campaigning strongly for forms of collective working time reduction to combat unemployment seems to be over. The last upsurge of this type of campaigning dates back from the mid-90s (cf. see also France). Introducing the 38 hours weekly working week (in 2001) as a general rule has been the last key fact in this regard.

The topic of working time seems furthermore in recent years mainly be raised by white-collar unions. The specific issues in this regard were and are:

  • The problem of overtime (and long working hours of professional and managerial staff)

  • Working at unusual hours (especially the compensation and working on Sunday).

  • How waiting or rest times are counted and compensated.

Specific topics in recent times in the industrial sectors have been the compensation of commuting times in the construction sector and the counting of working time beyond the annualisation in the automobile industry (BE0606019I).

The general debate between the social partners on working time has focused on the question of overtime and on the issue of the time credit system.

  • Expansion of overtime and simplifying the rules to adopt overtime has been a major demand of the employers’ side. The last intersectoral agreement, backed by the government, has introduced as a result new rules on this matter. The inter-sector agreement for 2007-8 established a reduction in the cost of overtime hours. Several sectoral agreements in the follow-up of this agreement have adopted the new rules on overtime and its pay from the intersectoral agreement. These new rules relate to overtime ranging from 66 to 130 working hours a year. According to decisions of the 2005–2006 intersectoral agreement, which the social partners never officially signed, compensation for overtime of this amount cannot only be arranged by additional time off, but also by paying a bonus to the worker in question.

  • The unions have been defending the time credit system in recent years, to expand it as a universal right for everybody (which is still not the case, conditions depend for instance on the size of the company).

Is part-time working generally viewed positively, or accepted reluctantly, by trade unions?

In general trade unions are positive as long as the part-time work is a voluntary choice and it doesn’t result in too much working at unusual hours or in a status of employment precariousness (higher job insecurity and/or temporary contract flexibility).

Work schedules

The working day and working week

To what extent does the standard ‘full-time’ working day – 08.00/09.00 to 17.00/18.00 - prevail as the norm?

Time budget research learns that still around 60% of the people work in a form of full-time working day (Glorieux, Mestdag & Minnen, 2006). Although forms like evening work, Saturday and Sunday work have slightly increased during the last decade, this is not the case for night work and certainly not for shift work (a decrease from 16% in 1992 to 8.8% in 2006). When taking even a longer historical period into consideration, one sees that standard working schedules captured a larger share of the working population in 1999 compared to 1966. Working on Saturday and shift work were in the 60s still much more the norm for the at that point much more blue-collar industrial working population of the country. Contractual flexibility is much more a characteristic of the structural changes in the Belgian economy that temporal flexibility.

To what extent does the ‘standard time norm’ of the working week (40 hour, 5 day week) prevail?

See previous point.

Non-standard work arrangements

According to the Labour Force Survey non-standard working hours, such as night work and weekend work, are less frequently applied in Belgium than in Europe. Nowadays, the Belgian Government is again promoting irregular working times by means of tax reductions. It is hoped that the tax reductions will improve the competitive position of Belgian companies and subsequently generate additional employment. From 2006, the partial exemption from payment of withholding tax on premiums for shift-work and for night work has been raised from 2.5% to 5.63% (NRP, 2006).

To what extent are non-standard working time arrangements – evening, night and week-end work - mainly limited to those sectors of the economy where it is difficult to avoid – e.g. shift working in continuous process plants or lunch-time and evening work in restaurants?

The non-standard working time arrangements seem indeed limited to the mentioned sectors. However, an important sector in this regard is certainly also the growing health care sector. As a result, shift work is in Belgium higher in this not-for-profit sector than in the industry or service sectors. Early and late working hours are a typical example of the growing, but ‘outsourced’ sector of cleaning and guarding.

As these sectors run into problems of finding people, Belgian governments have set-up programs to extend opening hours of child care facilities and to expand mobility facilities for workers.

Is there a tendency for non-standard schedules to enter into other areas of the economy, where it may not be strictly necessary, but where it may have attractions – for employers wishing to make more intensive use of their plant, equipment and other facilities, and for workers wishing to attain a better work-life balance or a more convenient means of taking care of children?

Introduction of non-standard schedules for productivity reasons is a factor, which was already expanded in previous decades to keep the Belgian industry cost-competitive.

To what extent are weekend working and other non-standard working arrangements the result of seasonal work (such as in tourism)?

Not in particular. However, in recent years the trade and distribution sector (shops) has expanded its opening hours in a seasonal way (for example in the period of Christmas shopping). A policy debate is still running on the opening hours of (certain types of) shops on Sunday (BE0703029I).

Shift working

How important is regular shift working (as opposed to occasional shifts to cope with increased temporary demand) in your country?

Belgian workers work less frequently in shifts than the average European worker. The fourth European Working Conditions Survey indicates that in Belgium 13% of employed people worked in shifts in 2005, compared to 17% in the EU25 (EWCS, 2006). In general, shift-work is more frequent in major companies and in the sector of health & social work.

After a period of strong decline (together with the decline of the manufacturing sector in Belgium), shift work has now stabilised. New growing areas of shift work are as already explained the health care sector (as result of the ageing society).

Is shift-working predominantly carried out in specific sectors, and is there any tendency for it to decline (for example as a result of reducing capacity in traditional sectors) or to increase (as employers everywhere seek to make more intensive use of capital investments)?

Please see previous question.

What kinds of shift systems dominate – regular mornings, afternoon or nights or mixed patterns?

This kind of information is only available at the level of the organisations (based on a representative sample of organisations in only the Flemish region, PASO survey). Full-continuous shift work (24 hours/ 7 days a week) is the main form of shift work. However, when we exclude the (semi-)public sector, 16hours/5 days is the main form (excluding night and weekend work) (Gryp et al., 2004). All-in-all, we can conclude (indirectly) that mixed patterns are the main form

Organisation of working time

Flexibility of working time

How far do individual workers have influence over their own working time arrangements – for example over the time they start and end work?

Table 1: Flexible working time arrangements, % of Belgian employees (15-64 years), 2004
% Incidence of flexible working time arrangements in Belgium
Type %
Fixed working hours 68.3
Core hours with flexible start and end time 7.7
Banking working hours (only loose hours) 3.9
Banking working hours (also whole days) 3.8
Start and end of the day individually regulated 6.8
Can determine own working hours 3.8
Other working hours 5.8

Source: Eurostat, LFS 2004, ad-hocmodule

These types of working time flexibilisation are only available for a limited group of workers. Around 30% of the Belgian companies/organisations experiment with these types of working time flexibilisation (PASO, 2003; ESWT, 2005). Based on the ad-hoc LFS module of 2004, only a limited numbers of employees indicate that they can use one of these forms (see table).

Research on working time preferences indicates that there is still a need for working time reduction in Belgium, especially working less days. ‘Negative’ flexibility is especially determined as situations where one not has a fixed working time schedule. Variable working time schedules, which are defined by the employer, are especially seen as a burden (Van Dongen, 2004).

To what extent is it possible to ‘bank’ hours or days of work – for example to work extra hours for a number of days in order to take day(s) off?

Please see previous question.

To what extent can workers determine their own work schedules - in other words, work when they like, so long as the work is delivered on time?

Please see previous question.

From an employee perspective, can a distinction be drawn between ‘positive’ flexibility concerning working time (i.e. arrangements that suit them) and ‘negative’ flexibility (arrangements that suit their employers), or are most arrangements by mutual consent?

Is there evidence that people with higher ranking, better paid jobs are more likely to have greater flexibility regarding their working time arrangements than those with lower ranking/less well paid jobs?

Yes, qualifications are a highly determinating factor.

Are there major differences between non-manual workers and manual workers in terms of such flexibility?

Please see previous question.

Are there major differences between public sector and private sector workers in terms of such flexibility?

These types of arrangements seem to be especially higher in the service sector and not particularly in the public sector.

Are any major gender differences – for example, are men and women seen to be subject to more or less ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ flexibility?

Information on the gender aspect of positive or negative flexibility is mainly related to the motives of part-time work. This gender aspect interferes in this regard with an age effect. Women work more part-time than man and this also more on a ‘voluntary’ basis (i.e. they don’t want to have a full-time job). The reason for working part-time is especially involuntary when one is young. Afterwards, it is a positive choice. Particular for Belgium is furthermore that this ‘voluntary’ choice mentioned as motive stays the same also at the older age.

Other working time issues

Multiple job holding

How widespread is the practice of multiple job holding in your country?

This is a very marginal phenomenon in Belgium.

Are second or third jobs primarily seen as supplementary sources of income relative to a main job, or are all the different jobs seen as equally valid?

See previous question.

Commuting time

How much time does commuting typically add to the average ‘working day’ (in the sense of time spent away from home)?

Time budget surveys learn that the average commuting time is between 3 to 4 hours on a weekly basis for working people. Taking the normal 5-day working week into account, this is an average of 40 minutes, a time estimate confirmed by the EWCO survey data. 70% of the Belgians commute by car to their work. Use of public transport is higher when the place of work is situated in an urban area. Commuting time is on average longer in Belgium, because people in Belgium don’t have the tradition to move house when changing work. On the contrary, due to the need of having space and high house price in suburban areas, the commuting distance from home to work has been growing. Furthermore, the higher labour market participation of women has also increased commuting. They combine, more often than men, a range of movings (home-work-school-shop), which results in a higher need to have a (own) car to do these trips.

Is commuting commonplace for everybody, or does the time spent vary in any systematic way – such as according to the type of job, or whether people live in urban or rural areas?

Please see previous question.

Is the development of teleworking (full-time or part-time) seen as a viable and attractive alternative to commuting?

Telework is of course promoted as a viable alternative for commuting (see for example the following policy study commissioned by the Flemish Minister of Mobility). However; the amount of telework is still limited (according to the used definition 5 to 10%).

Unpaid working hours (of those in work)

Is there much debate about the impact of time spent on unpaid work in the home, as well as time spent on paid work, on work-life balance, especially between men and women?

This debate has been introduced already for a long time by the women’s movement (cf. the 70s). The general perceptions was also for a long time that when women would be emancipated at the labour market (e.g. having a job, just like men), the division of work between men and women in the household would also change and that men would take up more household tasks. Research shows time and time again that this is a very difficult process, happening only very slowly in practice. As a result, it is especially the (more and more working) women, which have been confronted with enhanced time problems.

However, this debate has in recent years in general been re-focused on the question of the so-called combination pressure (combinatiedruk). Having to combine a paid job with rearing children, keeping up with hobbies and coping with domestic tasks can result in many people feeling frustrated due to a lack of time (BE0605019I). Men and especially women between 25 and 49 years old and belonging to a two-earner family with children are confronted with this time pressure problem.

Government policies try to solve this type of time pressure problems in two ways:

  • Subsidising career break systems (cf. time credit system) and expand thematic leave systems (for example parental leave).

  • Making the externalising or outsourcing of certain household tasks (cleaning, ironing, and child care) easier by introducing tax incentives and a specific service voucher system (dienstencheques/titres-services).

Are there pressures for non-paid work to be more recognised, and for the work involved to be shared more evenly between partners?

Please see previous question.

Composite indicators of weekly working hours

Composite indicators of weekly working hours have been developed for full-time and part-time workers, both male and female, which include time spent in unpaid as well as paid work and time spent commuting. What do you see as the most significant implications of these indicators so far as your country is concerned?

These indicators are to a large extent comparable with information based on time budget surveys (using a diary method). However, they seem to overestimate working time and to underestimate non-paid household work. Time budget data are more detailed. As a result they also pay more attention to less recurrent household activities (household shopping; doing odd jobs in the house; straighten out the household administration).


Glorieux I., Mestdag I. & Minnen J. (2006), Are atypical and flexible working hours increasing? Evolutions in working time in Belgium between 1966 and 1999. Paper XXVIII Annual Congres van de International Association for Time Use Research, Copenhagen 16-18 augustus 2006

Gryp S. et al. (2004), Buigen of Barsten. Over flexibele arbeid in hedendaagse Vlaamse organisaties. Leuven: KUL. Hoger instituut voor de arbeid, departement TEW & departement sociologie

Van Dongen, W. (2004). Werken aan het combinatiemodel: beschikbare faciliteiten van het combinatiebeleid in Vlaamse organisaties (PASO-dossier). Leuven: KUL. Hoger instituut voor de arbeid, departement TEW & departement sociologie.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute of Labour Studies, K.U.Leuven

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