The enlarged council of federal ministers has approved a series of economic measures worth €50 billion to help businesses affected by the coronavirus shutdown.
The measures were on the table of the ministers meeting on Saturday, after the European Union gave the go-ahead on the package. Under the special powers granted to the caretaker government last month, the measures take the form of a set of Royal Decrees, which benefit from a fast-track passage through the legislative process.
The enlarged Kern (nucleus) as it is known is made up of ministers of the minority coalition, together with representatives of the other parties who granted the government special powers – socialists, greens, N-VA, cdH and DéFI.
Businesses that are facing economic difficulties now, but which were in good shape when the original measures to combat the spread of the virus were announced on 18 March, are now protected against seizure of assets of bankruptcy, under a proposal from justice minister Koen Geens (CD&V) and minister for small businesses Denis Ducarme (MR).
The €50 billion package takes the form of credit guarantees to enable the banks to extend new credit to businesses in difficulties. Because the measure has implications for the country’s debt position, if first required the green light from the EU.
In the sectors considered critical, including food retail and the health sector, workers are now free from tax on earnings for up to 220 hours of voluntary overtime.
The unemployed will be granted a freeze on the degressive nature of unemployment benefits over time, for as long as the crisis lasts. At the same time, registered asylum-seekers will be allowed access to the jobs market.
For these and other workers, the government has lifted its objection to using repeated short-term contracts, which allow employers to adjust their staffing numbers to follow demand more closely. Workers representatives argue the contracts offer workers fewer rights and protections.
At present, many employees prevented from working on their normal jobs are on temporary unemployment. Another new measure allows them to take up jobs in horticulture and forestry without total loss of benefits. They will now earn a normal rate for the job while receiving 75% of their benefits.
The measure is of vital importance to food production, where fruit and vegetables are at risk of being left to rot on the tree or in the ground because the typical stream of guest workers who come for the harvest are unable to travel by the various travel bans imposed by national authorities.
The government is also looking at the possibility of creating a contingent of health-care workers who will be on stand-by to step in if and when the situation locally requires it, for example when existing staff in hospitals and care homes become ill themselves or have to stop working for other reasons.
That measure and several others will be the subject of continued discussions this weekend. Prime minister Sophie Wilmès has promised the whole package will be dealt with this weekend, so that it can be sent to the Council of State for approval (or for amendment) as quickly as possible.