Explosive number of vacancies: Is importing foreign labour really the answer?

Explosive number of vacancies: Is importing foreign labour really the answer?
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Despite an unprecedented number of vacancies, about 80,000 Brussels residents are unemployed. In all of Belgium, more than 300,000 people are looking for jobs. The paradox is caused by a labour market that is tighter than ever before.

A lack of jobs is not the issue: with more than 200,000 job openings, Belgium ranks third in the EU with a record number of job vacancies.

Still, businesses are struggling to recruit, as language and education requirements form barriers and people no longer want to settle for sub-par working conditions or travel long distances for their job.

As a result, thousands of passenger flights are cancelled due to strikes, schools are forced to cancel exams due to a lack of teachers, and warehouses are threatened by union actions in the near future.

In Wallonia, 141 sectors are suffering staff shortages while the number of vacancies continues to rise.

Struggling businesses

The current labour shortage crisis is creating many challenges across a wide range of sectors.

Concrete company Van Thuyne is among the many businesses that are struggling to recruit. Some of their trucks are no longer in use, as one in ten vacancies remains unfilled.

“Due to a staff shortage, we can no longer respond to every customer request,” manager Tom Eeckhout tells De Morgen.

“Getting people with the right experience in the right place is no longer possible. And we have to train new workers completely from scratch.”

In addition, employees are less loyal to the company than they used to be, Eeckhout says. “New workers sometimes drop out after two weeks because they can easily find new work in the area. Others have the luxury of sampling a little bit of everything and hopping from one job to the next,” he concludes.

There are simply too few hands in our country, sighs manager Dirk Martens, whose garden company is implementing a customer shutdown. “I can no longer find workers in the area because young graduates become self-employed fairly quickly.”

Labour migration: A solution?

For that reason, Martens has been employing Polish workers for a decade. “But I can no longer convince even those workers because of the expensive Belgian standard of living and the growing rate of employment in Poland.”

Policymakers are becoming increasingly aware that urgent action is needed, as the new job deal aims for labour reforms, particularly targeting the large group of inactive people.

Meanwhile, employers’ organisation Voka wants to focus on targeted labour migration. Belgium is already looking to attract more foreign workers, as more flexible rules for foreign nationals to work and reside in the country have been put in place to tackle the chronic labour shortage.

Language barriers

However, the issue of the language barrier will not be resolved by attracting foreign nationals. In fact, a quick look at the Flemish employment website VDAB can indicate why so many people in Belgium remain unemployed: many employers require fluency in Dutch.

Bilingualism is a huge hurdle in the recruitment of employees. “Half of the vacancies in Brussels indeed require knowledge of both French and Dutch, and sometimes also English,” said spokesperson Jan Gatz of job platform Actiris.

But only one in five jobseekers has a basic knowledge of the other national language, while barely 7% has a good knowledge of the other language. Only 4 to 5% of job seekers at Actiris have a file in Dutch.

Albanian job seeker Roan Çela, who has been living in Belgium for six years and speaks basic Dutch but has not been able to find a job, faces these issues first-hand. “I have completed a Belgian truck driving course, only to find out it’s impossible to find a job without fluently speaking Flemish,” he explains. “Why do you need to be fluent in Dutch if the company’s language is English?”

Besides, unpleasant working conditions and low pay are simply not worth the hassle. “If a family can get €1570 euros in income support a month, no one will come to break their back on a farm for €200 more.”

“Pay people a decent wage and you won’t need foreign workers,” Çela said. “Remove artificial language barriers and the business will have plenty of workers.”

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