Despite having a surfeit of vacancies and a large number of working-age people in the country unemployed, many migrants in Belgium are excluded from the labour market as companies continue to import workers from abroad.
It is the great paradox of the Belgian labour market, economist Dries Lens says tells De Morgen: “On the one hand, we have one of the tightest labour markets in Europe with huge shortages of manpower and skills. On the other, we have a large labour reserve: people who are inactive for various reasons.”
In his thesis at the University of Antwerp, Lens studied migrants in the labour reserve to investigate how Belgium has been poorly integrating migrants into the labour market for decades. “At the same time, you constantly hear that labour migration is one of the important solutions to tackle the shortages.”
The secondment struggle
More than 200,000 people working in Belgium were recruited from abroad through a secondment system. This happens across sectors, from construction, transport and meat processing, to highly skilled jobs in ICT and petrochemicals.
“Those people are working here but are officially employed abroad, half of them in Eastern European countries,” Lens explains. They are motivated employees with high productivity whose labour can lead to growth and investment, benefiting the local population.
But there may also be a displacement effect: “As employees from abroad are cheaper and more motivated, they are pushing local workers out of the market, both migrants and natives.”
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In Belgium, unemployment rates among ‘second-generation migrants’ are larger than in other European countries, even though they already know the country's language(s) and culture.
Besides, Belgium offers a high level of workers' protection. An advantage for those who are employed, but an obstacle for those seeking jobs: "We have few low-wage and flexible jobs, such as shift work, where newcomers and the low-skilled can easily enter.”
While discrimination is undoubtedly an important factor, according to Lens, there are also other issues and Lens believes “It would be remarkable if this discrimination was so much stronger in Belgium than in France or the Netherlands.”
An explanation is Belgium's high rate of family reunification compared to neighbouring countries. This results in a relatively large share of low-skilled migrants. “The integration of the low-skilled is a weak point of our labour market: it is very rigid, with a strong distinction between insiders and outsiders.”
(Lack of) language barriers
80% to 90% of vacancies in Belgium require a good knowledge of French or Dutch. Those without language requirements tend to be sourced via secondments. This makes it difficult for newcomers in Belgium that are not seconded to find a job.
Another issue with secondment is that it makes employers less motivated to invest in our youth's education and to make professions with shortages attractive, Lens says. “That way we lost precious time.”
Less protection, lower-paying jobs
Lens argues that there is a need to debate the organisation of the labour market. In particular, he asserts that too much protection and high minimum wages are paradoxically becoming "antisocial".
“We now assume that high protection and high minimum wages are social, but they are in fact the opposite: high minimum wages are good for people who are working, but not for those who struggle to access the labour market.”
“Because of this high level of protection, employers resort to secondment and people who live here already are left out – especially migrants.”
“We are missing a segment where people can quickly enter the labour market. We need low-paid and flexible jobs that can be a stepping stone to better jobs.”
“What we certainly do not want is more people who work here through secondment; it prevents the labour integration of people who live here and are vulnerable.”