New collective agreement on temporary agency work

Social partners at Belgium’s National Work Council have negotiated a new cross-sectoral agreement on temporary agency work. It modernises existing laws and collective agreements to suit the current employment market. Changes relate mainly to the use of temporary agency work and daily work contracts. While employers and unions are broadly in favour of temporary agency work, unions are anxious to make sure it is closely regulated.

Background

Various types of temporary work in Belgium have different contractual agreements. These include paid training schemes, student jobs, occasional work, service vouchers, apprenticeships, fixed-term contracts and temporary agency work. Most of these work contracts are partly or fully covered by Collective Agreement 36 of 27 November 1981.

Over the past three decades, the collective agreement has been amended a number of times to make the rules more flexible to meet the specific needs of workplaces and markets, and to promote employment. The Belgian legal framework for temporary work has also had to be amended to incorporate the European Directive 2008/104/CE (59 KB PDF) on temporary agency work.

More recently, based on the governmental agreement of 6 December 2011, social partners negotiated measures to improve the quality of work and job opportunities in the temporary agency work sector. On 16 July 2013 at the National Labour Council (CNT-NAR), the social partners concluded Collective Agreement 108 on temporary work and temporary agency work.

Work relationships

It should be pointed out that there is a distinction between temporary and temporary agency work. Although all the temporary agency contracts are temporary, all temporary contracts do not involve temporary agency work. According to the Belgian definition, temporary agency work means there is a relationship between three parties – the worker, the employer, which is the temporary employment agency, and the ‘customer-user’.

In Belgium, employers’ use of temporary agency work is limited to certain specific circumstances:

  • the short-term replacement of a permanent worker while on holiday or sick leave or sudden absence due to resignation or dismissal;
  • an extraordinary increase of workload;
  • the organisation of a one-off activity, such as a trade show or conference;
  • a regional plan for labour market integration;
  • the creation of an artistic work;

Since 2013, employers have also been allowed to use temporary agency work as a way of employing workers on a trial basis before offering them a permanent contract.

Temporary agency work is not permitted in the transport and logistics sector. In the construction sector it is limited to the replacement of a permanent worker on sickness leave.

Nowadays, 9% of Belgian employees work on a temporary agency work basis. The statistics in Table 1 show that the number of temporary agency workers has increased significantly over the past few decades. Most temporary agency contracts are signed by blue collar workers. There has also been a significant increase in the proportion of temporary agency workers aged 31 and over since 1999.

Table 1: Temporary agency work in Belgium

 

1985

1999

2012

Number of hours worked on temporary agency contracts (in millions)

26.4

125

106.4

Number of workers on temporary agency contracts

13,460

62,661

84,827

Source: UPIDE, 1999; Delbar C. & Léonard E., 2002; FEDERGON, 2013

Table 2: Temporary agency work by age, status and gender, 1999–2012

 

1999

2012

Under 21

12%

8.6%

21–25

33.9%

27.0%

26–30

32.1%

18.5%

31–45

26.9%

31.8%

46 and over

6.1%

22.4%

Blue-collar workers

62.8%

57.9%

White-collar workers

37.2%

42.1%

Women

-

59.9%

Men

-

40.1%

Source: UPIDE, 1999; Delbar C. & Léonard E., 2002; FEDERGON, 2013

Changes in the legislation

Four other major changes are introduced in the new collective agreement:

  • Daily work contracts are now permitted for the ‘flexibility needs’ of the ‘customer-user’. There has to be proof that the flexibility provided by daily work contracts is needed. ‘Customer-user’ employers must consult their works council or a trade union delegation, explaining why such contracts are necessary. If there is no works council or union, they must inform the Social Fund for temporary agency workers (Fastt). The joint committee of the customer-user employer is expected to deal with any problems, and unresolved cases should be referred to the Labour Court.
  • A new condition allows the hiring of temporary agency workers for the ‘reason of insertion’. Temporary agency workers can now fill vacant posts for a maximum of six months. After this ‘trial period’, a permanent contract can be offered but it is not compulsory. The law has been drawn up to avoid the increase of ‘precarious jobs’ by forbidding companies to use temporary agency workers for the purposes of labour market insertion for longer than nine months in total, for the same vacant job. This aims to stop employers using several temporary agency workers for the same job, ending each person’s employment after the trial period.
  • New procedures to monitor the temporary agency workforce now oblige ‘customers-users’ and temporary work agencies to notify trade unions when temporary agency workers are employed in companies.
  • The new agreement, which came into force on 1 July 2013, replaces Collective Agreement 36 on temporary work and use of temporary agency workers (1981), and Collective Agreement 58 on working time conditions for temporary workers.

Commentary

Temporary agency work remains an important issue in the industrial relations landscape. Employer groups view temporary agency work as a necessary flexibility tool in specific circumstances. Trade unions view it on the one hand as a potential lead-in to precarious employment and on the other as an opportunity for people to access the labour market.

While unions do not object to temporary agency work, they would like to work with employers’ associations to map out a legal framework which leads to more sustainable jobs. In the past, they made major progress on this issue in several collective agreements concluded in 2011 and 2012.

The profiles of temporary agency workers are quite different. According to a study by Federgon, the Federation of HR Providers, there are five typical profiles of temporary agency workers:

  • 15% are young professionals who are looking for a first work experience;
  • 20% are ‘extra-earners’ – people looking to make more money;
  • 48% are ‘springboarders’ – people looking for a permanent job;
  • 10% are ‘career (re)launchers’, often stay-at-home mothers and/or people returning to work after a long work break;
  • 7% are ‘flex professionals’ who have chosen this type of work for the opportunities it provides.

This study is a useful example of social partners trying to understand and improve the status of temporary agency work for each stakeholder. Another example is the study financed by the Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB/ABVV), which has some interesting results on the working conditions of temporary agency workers:

  • 19% of temporary agency workers have daily contracts;
  • 65% have weekly contracts;
  • 48% of temporary agency workers go to work even if they are sick, and among those, 54% fear losing their jobs if they do not go to work.

Trade unions have become very active in preparing awareness campaigns and developing websites dedicated to temporary and temporary agency workers.

Michel Ajzen, Institut des Sciences du Travail-UCL

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