New equal opportunities laws

The Belgian government is intensifying its drive towards equal pay for men and women and providing a better deal for older workers. In March 2012, parliament passed a law that forced companies to report on rates of pay for men and women, and in April 2012 it approved an initiative to keep older employees in the labour market for longer. Belgium is striving for improvement even though, compared to the rest of Europe, it is already considered to be performing well in these areas.

Combating the gender pay gap

On International Women’s Day on 8 March 2012, the Belgian parliament approved a law to combat the pay gap between women and men. The law (in Dutch and French, 134Kb PDF) includes a package of measures and mandatory administrative reports for companies both at enterprise and sectoral level. Their purpose is to detect and monitor the gender pay gap in companies across Belgium.

Key provisions of the new law

The new legislation introduces measures to monitor and address pay gaps at both company and sectoral level.

At company level

Enterprises with more than 50 employees will have a number of new requirements.

  • They will have to report the wages of male and female employees in the ‘social balance sheet’ that all Belgian companies are required to include in their annual accounts. This section gives details of the social impact of a business, such as employee movements and training programmes.
  • They should make a two-yearly analysis of their pay structure. The conclusions of this analysis have to be submitted to the company’s Works Council and have to include the wages, social benefits, supplementary insurances and other fringe benefits, measured as full-time equivalents, and broken down by gender, blue/white-collar status, job level, seniority and level of qualification.
  • They must appoint a mediator (such as a union representative) within the company, who can independently search for a solution if any employee thinks they are a victim of wage discrimination.

At sectoral level

To protect employees in smaller companies (fewer than 50 employees), sectoral Joint Committees will have to develop specific measures such as gender-neutral job function classifications. These must be submitted to the Federal Public Service for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue which will assess them against the already existing checklist for gender neutrality in job evaluation and classification (in French, 2.3Mb PDF), developed by the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men (a Federal Public Institute, created to guarantee and promote the equality of women and men).

Existing measures

The Belgian labour market policy already includes a number of measures to reduce the gender pay gap, and Belgium has always performed well in international comparisons.

The table below shows the gender pay gap in the 27 EU Member States, based on hourly wages. In 2010, the Belgian gender pay gap was 8.6%, much lower than the European average of 16.4%.

Gender pay gap in the EU27, 2010
Country Pay gap Country Pay gap

Estonia

27.6%

France

16.0%

Czech Republic

25.5%

Denmark

16.0%

Austria

25.5%

Sweden

15.8%

Germany

23.1%

Bulgaria

15.7%

Greece

22.0%

Lithuania

14.6%

Cyprus

21.0%

Portugal

12.8%

Slovakia

20.7%

Ireland

12.6%

United Kingdom

19.5%

Romania

12.5%

Finland

19.4%

Luxembourg

12.0%

Netherlands

18.5%

Poland

9.8%

Latvia

17.6%

Belgium

8.6%

Hungary

17.6%

Malta

6.1%

Spain

16.7%

Italy

5.5%

EU 27

16.4%

Slovenia

4.4%

Note: The unadjusted gender pay gap represents the difference between average gross hourly earnings of male and female paid employees as a percentage of average gross hourly earnings of male paid employees.

Source: Eurostat – Structure of Earnings Survey

Social partner reaction to new law

In a press statement (in Dutch), the Christian Trade Union (AVC) welcomed the new legislation, saying that it would make the pay gap more visible at company level, and would therefore make it easier for union leaders to tackle individual employers on the issue.

In an article (in Dutch) published on 14 March, the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (VBO) said that the new law did not address the causes of the pay gap, but only added to the administrative burden of companies by obliging them to collect data about the wages of their male and female employees, analyse their remuneration structure and appoint a mediator in the company.

Promoting the employment of older employees

In April 2012, the Belgian parliament approved a law concerning the creation of an employment plan to keep older employees active in the labour market for longer.

From 2013, companies will have to draw up an annual employment plan outlining measures to attract or keep older workers. The social partners have consulted during the drafting of the law, and had until 30 June 2012 to put forward alternative proposals.

The draft government plan includes measures that address:

  • the selection and recruitment of new employees;
  • the development of competences and qualifications of employees, including access to education and training;
  • career development and career guidance within the company;
  • opportunities for internal job change, to move employees to a job more suited to their competences as they age or as other life circumstances make it necessary;
  • the possibilities of adapting working hours and working conditions;
  • the health of the employee, and the prevention and elimination of physical and psychosocial barriers to work;
  • the need for a system of recognition of acquired competencies.

Commentary

The new law to combat the pay gap is well meant but risks overkill. Several studies have suggested the gender pay gap in Belgium is caused largely by the segmentation of the labour market. Studies such as The composition of the pay gap in Belgium (in Dutch) show that women are more likely to have part-time jobs, may not work in senior positions, and often work in other sectors and in different functions than men. When an analysis of the gender pay gap takes these factors into account, the gap reduces significantly.

Caroline Vermandere, HIVA - KU Leuven

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