Four-day working week, increased flexibility: Belgium agrees on labour deal

Four-day working week, increased flexibility: Belgium agrees on labour deal
The agreement tackles platform work, work-life balance and lifelong learning for employees. Credit: Unsplash/Flemish Government

Working through Monday night into Tuesday, the Federal Government concluded weeks of debates to decide the country's labour deal that will focus on flexibility for both employees and employers and introduces the four-day working week.

Previous discussions had focussed on improving protections for platform workers. The government finally announced an agreement on the labour market on Tuesday morning.

"We have experienced two difficult years. With this agreement, we set a beacon for an economy that is more innovative, sustainable and digital. The aim is to be able to make people and businesses stronger," said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

Four-day working week

"Although the coronavirus is widely seen as having a negative impact on employees, it has forced us to work more flexibly and combine our private and working lives. This has led to new ways of working," De Croo said.

Consequently, the new laws will allow for more flexibility on working hours and locations. Notably, employees may work more hours per day, in order to work one day fewer per week.

Employees can work a maximum of 9.5 hours per day, with the possibility of extending to ten hours per day via a collective agreement between the company and trade unions to allow employees to complete their full-time working week in just four days.

The tweet reads: "Agreement on labour market reform means concrete progress for workers: Individual right to training, protection of platform workers, work-life balance, booster for employment."

Employees can also choose to work more one week and less the next week, which would be useful for those who are in co-parenting and would enable people to better manage their private life alongside their work-life.

"This has to be done at the request of the employee, with the employer giving solid grounds in case of refusals," Economy Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne said.

Finally, companies with more than 20 employees must observe the right to disconnect, as was introduced for federal civil servants on 1 February. Employees will no longer have to answer calls from their boss after normal working hours. Again, agreements on this must be made with the trade unions.

Platform workers

This aspect of the agreement blocked a final deal for a long time. Belgium’s socialist PS party and Green party wanted to better protect platform workers such as Deliveroo couriers or Uber drivers by granting them employee status more quickly. However, the Francophone liberal MR party said such a proposal could see these platforms leave the country.

The new agreement seeks to get rid of the grey zone such platforms currently operate in, giving more security to platform workers. It is based in part on the European Commission directive, which proposed five criteria to establish whether there is an "authority relationship" in hidden algorithms, which would limit for example how much people can earn via such platforms.

Belgium has added three more criteria, including the use of geolocation to restrict people offering services on such platforms.

© Tomaskju/PxHere

Social Affairs Minister Frank Vandenbroucke explained that if two-fifths of the Commission's criteria or three in eight Belgian criteria show a relationship of authority (employer-employee relationship), the worker must be considered an employee, with all the accompanying social protections.

"The platform economy allows self-employment to be better organised but if this is done under a cloak of 'pseudo-self-employment' which removes worker freedoms, this must be addressed and the platform company should respect the other responsibilities it has for workers."

Anyone active in the platform economy will also be better protected in the event of work accidents via an extension of the 1971 Workplace Accident Act. "This is very important since a courier in the platform economy is 15 times more likely to have an accident at work," Dermagne said.

Night workers

E-commerce operators will once again be able to let employees work between 20:00 and midnight, without this being considered night work, with a collective labour agreement. The regulation will be evaluated after two years.

"Many e-commerce companies do not base themselves in Belgium because our laws are more rigid. This drains capacity and economic profits," Federal Minister of the Self-Employed, David Clarinval, said.

E-commerce companies can also set up a one-off pilot project with the possibility of working these hours, allowing employees who so wish can voluntarily join the pilot project for a maximum duration of 18 months, without the need for trade unions to consent.

In both cases, the employer must pay extra wages or a premium for this evening work.

Lifelong learning

"Developing a culture of employee training is a very important aspect of our agreement: an individual training right for every employee," Dermagne said. This will be offered by the employer, starting from three days in 2022, four days in 2023 and five days from 2024 onwards.

"Investing in training creates more skilled employees who are of greater value on the labour market. It also benefits the company in this fast-changing world," Dermagne stressed. Companies must launch a training plan every year.

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There will also be a possibility to switch between jobs more quickly. "The labour market is evolving rapidly, so we need to make it quicker and easier for people to change jobs," De Croo said. This will make Belgium's workforce more dynamic. People will also be able to start a new job during the notice period.

All these provisions will form the new "Labour Bill" that will be submitted to social partners for possible adjustments. These will then be included as amendments before being definitively approved and then going to parliament.

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