Socialist trade union and feminist groups propose career leave credit system

As a basis for negotiations between the social partners and the government, in March 2000 the Belgian socialist trade union confederation, ABVV/FGTB, proposed a "leave credit" system for all employees, which would allow for working time reduction over an employee's whole career, rather than the traditional measures that reduce employees' hours over a week or year. Employees could take the 12 months of leave at any time during their career, without requiring their employer's agreement or having to give reasons for the leave. As the federal coalition government has put flexible labour market participation high on its agenda, the proposal seems to be negotiable. For its part, the Belgian platform of the World March of Women is demanding an even more radical leave credit system.

In early 2000, the issue of reducing lifetime working time through a system of leave credits has been high on the agenda of both the socialist trade union confederation, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond/Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique, ABVV/FGTB), and Belgian feminist groups.

The ABVV/FGTB view

Belgian trade unions have a long tradition of both defending employees' right to work and negotiating both normal and maximum working hours. In a press report issued on 2 March 2000, entitled Equal rights for women, ABVV/FGTB sets out the various different ways in which working hours have been reduced in Belgium:

  • on a weekly basis. Since a 1921 agreement on a 48-hour, six-day week, the normal working week has been cut, without any reduction of wages, to a maximum of 39 hours at present. ABVV/FGTB's goal is now a collective agreement on a 32-hour, four-day working week;
  • on an annual basis. Two weeks of paid annual leave were agreed in 1936, and today employees are entitled to four weeks of holidays, of which three weeks and three days are paid at double rate; and
  • on a career basis. Until now, only the end of the career has been taken as a reference for working time reduction. In the 1970s and 1980s, early retirement schemes were introduced with a twofold motivation - (i) preventing job losses among younger employees which would otherwise have resulted from the restructuring of industries and companies undergoing difficulties, and (ii) giving employees in "onerous" jobs the possibility of retiring before attaining the legal retirement age.

According to ABVV/FGTB, now is the time to create a supplementary way of reducing working hours, linked to an employee's entire career. Under the proposed scheme, all employees would receive a 12-month "leave credit" (loopbaankrediet), paid at 100% of normal pay, to be used over the course of the employee's career. The details of the scheme are as follows:

  • employees would receive a 12-month leave credit;
  • the credit would be an individual right for each employee. It would not depend on agreement with the employer, nor would it have to be justified with arguments pertaining to the employee's private life. On these points, the proposed system is entirely different from existing schemes;
  • loss of income would be fully compensated. This is very different to present systems of sabbatical leave, under which monthly allowances do not exceed EUR 350, which is far below the subsistence minimum;
  • a new employee would have to fill the vacant job. This promotes employment, while at the same time preventing extra work pressure and stress for other workers. Although the ABVV/FGTB proposal does not explicitly mention who should temporarily fill the vacant job, the existing rule is that the job of a worker taking long-term leave is filled by a jobless worker drawing unemployment benefits;
  • the employees would have a guarantee that they could return to their job; and
  • social security resources would have to be raised accordingly.

The leave credit could be used in various forms, allowing for individual choice and custom-made adaptation to personal situations. At one extreme, an employee could choose to take every Wednesday afternoon off, which is particularly relevant in equality terms as this is a free afternoon for schoolchildren. At the other extreme, another employee may prefer to take a whole year off at once. For some this could be an opportunity for new education or training, for others a possibility of extra parental leave, and for others still maybe an opportunity for a world trip.

In an intermediate phase, 100% income compensation may not be realistic, says ABVV/FGTB. In that case, the leave credit should be convertible on a voluntary basis. What is essential though, is that the system should be attractive for both women and men, the main disadvantage of present career break and sabbatical leave schemes (BE9810248N) being that in over 80% of cases they are taken up by women.

The Equal rights for women document also stresses the importance of more "traditional" but equally relevant equality demands:

  • extension of parental leave. Special attention should be given to paternity leave and equal rights for parents with adopted children;
  • more justice in job classifications. Wages for women are still substantially lower than for men - 20% lower among blue-collar workers and 30% among white-collar workers. Women are proportionally more numerous in lower-paid jobs and face more difficulties in gaining promotion. Additionally, in some sectors job classifications are still unfavourable for women, which requires a fairer reanalysis;
  • better access to educational leave. Paid educational leave is a right that entitles employees to a limited absence from work while keeping the same wage level. Nevertheless, women are less involved than men in educational leave. This is partly explained by the fact that access to educational leave is limited for part-time workers; and
  • equal rights in social security. Several aspects of unemployment regulations are seen as unjust or discriminatory - such as exclusion from unemployment benefits for workers "who have been unemployed for an abnormally long time" (ie 1.5 times longer than the mean period of unemployment for people of the same qualification level and region), and reduced unemployment benefits for non-single people, whereas these benefits should be viewed as an individual right. Similar problems leading to poverty and discrimination need to be tackled in the fields of pensions and family allowances.

Belgian platform for the World March of Women

In Belgium, the link between employment issues, industrial relations and feminist points of view is definitely becoming stronger. For example, at government level, in both the present and former government, the Minister for Employment and Labour is also the Minister for Equal Opportunities, while former Minister Miet Smet created Amazone, an institution giving women's non-governmental organisations (NGO s) joint facilities for coordination and meetings.

On 15 October 2000, feminist NGOs from all over the world will lead a World March of Women through the streets of Washington, USA, especially outside the offices of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The basic theme will be the problems of women facing poverty and violence. International, continental and country-specific platforms are involved. At the international level, the demands are among others related to legal protection against violence in the household and the exploitation of women through prostitution. Exploitation of the "third world" through monetary speculation is also an issue. The European platform raises the issues of political power for women and independence for foreign residents. The Belgian platform is centred on work and security rights.

Essentially, this Belgian platform covers the same issues as those dealt with in the ABVV/FGTB report, but the demands are put in a more radical way. The problems of poverty and exclusion are analysed as being basically a consequence of little access to paid work, especially for low-qualified women. Moreover, women are also much more frequently employed in jobs characterised by poor working conditions. In terms of unemployment, the policy of reduced unemployment benefits for non-single people is questioned on the grounds of individual rights to social security. At the same time, however, the problems of single-income households are also stressed (such as divorced women and widows).

The Belgian platform advocates the compulsory reduction of working hours on a generalised basis as an essential instrument for the redistribution of work. This measure, it is claimed, could bring about a more equal distribution of work between men and women and reduce the gap between "work-poor" and "work-rich" women. "Social economy" projects are welcomed primarily for the services they supply in childcare, which is still basically handled by women.

Finally, the platform demands a leave credit system as an instrument for a more equal distribution of work between men and women. The credit proposed is of five years, to be used on a compulsory basis over several periods. A replacement income (of a maximum of EUR 2,000 gross per month) should guarantee continuation of the existing standard of living of the employees concerned. The system should involve compensatory employment to fill the vacancies created. It should replace all other leave systems.

Government and other social partner views

Systems that allow for more flexible labour market participation are in principle highly compatible with the views of the liberal, socialist and envionmentalist parties forming the present government, and with the federal government's basic stance on social policy (BE0001304F). The reduction of working hours is an important issue in the coalition agreement, although in rather "traditional" forms. The agreement proposes:

  • on a weekly basis, the agreement supports a "one-fifth" career break scheme, and places it on the agenda of the social partners. This would mean that people were given the possibility temporarily to work on a four-day week basis;
  • on an annual basis, more flexible use of holidays is also to be negotiated, so that employees are free, for instance, to take one afternoon off each week; and
  • on a career basis, in sectors involving onerous work there should be a possibility for a reduction of working hours without a corresponding reduction of wages. In the healthcare sector an agreement has already been reached for a reduction of working hours from the age 45 onwards (BE0003305F)

Leave systems are thus high on the agenda. Much will obviously depend on the costs that are involved. In preparation for the Lisbon European Council summit on employment, economic reform and social cohesion in March 2000 (EU0001220N), the French and Belgian Ministers for Employment, Martine Aubry and Laurette Onkelinx, together with the Belgian Minister for Social Affairs, Frank Vandenbroucke, and the Italian Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, Cesare Salvi, agreed a joint position paper on their priorities (EU0003232N). Among the priorities for more equal participation in the labour market, they call for the possibility for each employee to have access to one year's leave. As this leave would be unpaid, the proposal is still far away from that of ABVV/FGTB, not to mention that of the Belgian feminist platform.

According to Greet Van Den Driessche of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond/Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens, ACV/CSC): "Obviously we are very much in favour of ideas that can bring an impetus to full employment together with a more equal distribution of work between men and women. Nevertheless, the leave credit system idea is still vague. If the ABVV/FGTB proposal is about a system that is fully additional to the existing systems, we are obviously in favour. If, more realistically however, it is to replace or bring together parts of the existing systems, then we need a more detailed proposal. At the present time there also exist five-year leave systems, so the new proposed credit system could also mean a regression in the existing systems."

For the Flemish employers' organisation (Vlaams Economisch Verbond, VEV), the use of leave credit systems for a collective reduction of working hours is an old-fashioned idea. It increases labour costs for employers and causes an increase in clandestine employment. Moreover, its supposed positive effect on employment is questionable. VEV fully acknowledges the importance of flexible systems allowing for the reconciliation of tasks in professional and private life. The proposed leave credit system, however, is seen as unrealistic.Veerle Vermeulen of VEV stated: "There is a consensus that the costs of the Belgian social security system have to be reduced, whereas this system would lead to a rise of wage costs and indirectly to a reduction of employment. Moreover, in Flanders there is a shortage of supply in the labour market. You would just not find the supplementary qualified employees."

Commentary

Although the proposed leave credit systems are not yet fully developed in a negotiable form, they represent yet another expression of the social partners' increasing awareness of the variety of situations that households may be facing. Households can experience very different periods, characterised by higher or lower availability for the labour market. Accordingly, they need a range of arrangements in order to respond to both good and bad times. Along the same lines, the social partners are becoming more conscious of the variety in households. Lone-parent households (and households constituted of a parent and child) face an entirely different situation, with acute periods of very low labour market availability. A leave credit system has the important advantage of giving employees an instrument for responding to this situation.

Of course, questions can also easily be raised. Some people would "use up" their leave credit early in their careers, while others would "save" it until the end. Some might use it for having and raising children and others for increasing their "human capital". In this respect, it is still far from sure that the system would increase equality of opportunities. The ideas of highly educated feminists have not always tallied with the realities faced by less-skilled women and men. At the very least, however, the proposal attempts to tackle the problem of unequal use of leave systems (Jan De Schampheleire, VUB-TESA).

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