Work-Life Balance in Belgium: towards a Front-Runner Position
by Nahima Lanjri (Belgian Member of Parliament)
Eion Drea describes the evolution of the work-life balance in Europe and identifies how the recent Work-Life Balance Proposal (as a part of the European Pillar of Social Rights) marks a first step in attempting to build a meaningful work-life balance for Europe. He states that the new European proposal for a work-life balance directive creates a framework for parents and carers allowing them greater personal choice and responds to the changed and changing needs of families today.
Belgian social legislation meets up
Belgium has a long tradition of paid leaves to combine family, care and work, next to systems of childcare for babies, toddlers and children at school age and family support (e.g. service cheques). The first law on career breaks dates from 1985. In the last decades, our national framework evolved, also by European initiatives or directives and agreements between the social partners, to a broad system of different leaves.
Because of this evolution, the Belgian legal framework meets most of the proposals in the Work-Life Balance directive. Since 2002, fathers have the possibility to take-up to ten days of paid paternity leave following the birth of their child. Since 2011, parents can take-up the (renamed) birth leave. For births after March 8, 2012, every parent had an individual right to parental leave of four months until the child reaches the age of twelve. A motivated time credit of 51 months and thematical leaves create the possibility to take time off to care for or support children (up to eight years) and sick or disabled family members. Both the parental leave and the time credit can be taken full-time (with a minimum of a month), half-time (with a minimum of two months) or one day a week (1/5th). These systems have a high take-up. The government with a lump-sum allowance remunerates most of the leaves. Due to the recent Law on Workable and Agile work of 2017, the beginning and end of the working day can be modulated via sliding schedules. Employees have the possibility to work from home occasionally. The law also created the possibility to donate a day of leave to a colleague with a sick or disabled child for who continuous presence and care is indispensable. Meanwhile, workers became more ‘director’ of the own career. Via break@work and mycareer.be, they can consult their (remaining) rights on leaves: an important instrument in career planning. The pension administration will complement the existing possibilities by a tool simulating the effect of a leave on pension rights. Next to leave systems, parents can choose for formal pre-school childcare by a childminder or day care. The Barcelona norm requires childcare for minimum 33% of the children younger than three years old. In Flanders and the Brussels region, we reached a rate of 43.25% in 2017. Several large cities keep flirting with the norm. In Flanders, our childcare system is already highly accessible and payable. Due to an expanding income related system with reductions for the most vulnerable, a large offer for all type of families is available (e.g. for working parents or a job seeking single mother).
In the household, support is possible through ‘service cheques’. Informal caregivers (family member, neighbours and friends) and respite care can support the care for the sick or disabled.
The road ahead to more tailored arrangements
We acknowledge that the work is not done. The work-life balance requires constant policy attention as an important determinant for the quality of life. The generation between 25 and 49 years old that needs to combine work with the care for children and/or elderly and with the household is constantly ‘rat racing’. They are, from all the age cohorts, the ones most confronted with burnout or other psycho-social diseases.
Even in the two-earners or combination model with more women on the labour market, they remain the primary caregiver. This is one of the main reasons for the lower employment rate amongst women. The male employment rate (2017) was 73.4%, the female 63.6%. The existing gender pay gap influences the household’s decision for the woman to take up the leave or to work less and goes hand in hand with a gender care gap. The latest data reported a gender pay gap of 21% (calculated on a year basis) and 9% (calculated on an hour basis), despite the principle of equal pay for men and women. The main causes for this remaining and slowly closing gap are the greater amount of part-time work amongst women and the horizontal and vertical segregation on the labour market. Women work more in low(er) paid functions and sectors and make less promotion on the job.
As Flemish Christian democrats, we put the work-life balance high on the agenda. Work-life balance requires a policy mix as a set of answers or strategies: parents and carers need to have the choice between a more flexible work arrangement, leave or (in)formal support. This is the only way to achieve a real choice between care and support and work responsibilities. The policy changes go hand in hand with a necessary mind shift in society and with employees. On these conditions, we can move further towards the Nordic model with a high leave take-up by both parents, a higher employment rate amongst women and longer careers. We create a win-win for the workers as well as for the society as a whole: social progress accompanies economic growth.
We have several proposals that aim to make working arrangements and leaves more flexible and gender equal on the one hand and to let them meet the needs of modern families on the other. This gender equality, supported by the government, is important for the lifecycle of women and their children not to end up in poverty or social vulnerability, after a divorce, a decease or at pension age.
We propose school bell contracts and co-parenting contracts to let parents meet school hours, respectively to work less when children are present and more when they are not.
We aim for a birth leave of fifteen days of which ten days are mandatory. According to a study of the Institute for Equality between Women and Men (2010), fathers and fellow parents still have fear taking up their leave because of negative reactions of the employer and/or colleagues. They are afraid to lose their job or miss a promotion when they return.
The possibilities to take up the parental leave and time credit for a young child need to be more flexible. In July 2018, Federal Parliament agreed on the possibility to take up parental leave with half day a week or one day in two weeks and with weeks instead of months. Other caregivers deserve the same flexibility. Furthermore, we propose a uniform child age of 18 years, the care and support for a youngster is continuous and does not end at 8 or 12. A gender bonus can reward couples when the father takes up a leave for the children. We are persuaded that flexible leave arrangements can also convince fathers to apply faster for a leave, because it better fits the working situation.
Next to the possibility, the take-up has to pay off. Most of the leaves have a lump-sum remuneration. The higher earners know the highest income fallback. The monthly compensation for full-time parental leave amounts to 1,015.39 EUR net for a single parent and 735.64 EUR for a cohabitant. Both lay below the European poverty threshold. These amounts are one of the reasons why the less-earning partner, mostly women, apply for a leave. We aim for a short-term increase of the remuneration. In the long-term, we can consider a limited proportionate remuneration with attention for Matthew Effects and enough solidarity.
Single-parent families generally struggle more to find the right balance. Despite increases by the social partners, the remuneration remains a threshold for these families. Increases need to take this concern into account. In the long-term, we can consider a double amount of leave for single parents after the decease of the other parent.
A flexible leave arrangement can also be obtained by a child-following or person-following leave system that contains the total amount of all the existing leaves. The rights are portable, regardless of the employer or sector of the employee. The employee can choose to take up a leave period when a demand/need for care or support occurs.
When it comes to formal pre-school childcare, our aim is to go further and have a place for every child up to three years old with a demand in 2020. We keep focussing on accessible and payable childcare, flexible enough to meet an occasional demand or the needs of a job-seeking parent or a couple with non-standard working hours. For the school-aged, the local authorities (communities and cities) will become the director, together with sports, arts, culture… of a range of activities during the school year. A wide array of options is also required during school holidays.
Belgium’s homework to meet the demands of the new Work-life Balance directive will be limited. However, the directive offers the opportunity to further flexibilize the leave and work arrangements tailored to the changed and changing needs of parents and caregivers.
 The thematical leaves are parental leave, leave for medical support and leave for palliative care.
 For example: in the period 2012-2017, 62.258 employees (on a total of 73.587) applied for the motivated time credit to care for a child younger than 8 years old.
 See more: https://www.breakatwork.be/.
 See more: https://www.kindengezin.be/cijfers-en-rapporten/cijfers/kinderopvang-baby-peuter/gemeenten-provincie-zorgregio/#1-Meest-recente-cijfers-i.
 74% of the places in Flanders and the Dutch day cares in the Brussels region are income related.
 The OECD marks the work life balance as an important factor for individual well-being.
 In 2016, 14,1% of the Belgian employees between 30 and 40 stated a non-balance between work and their private life. 1 of 10 employees had a real burn-out. Especially young employees have an increased risk (19% for employees younger than 35, 23% aged 35 to 39 and 14% by employees older than 40. See: Flemish Workable monitor 2016 for employees, http://www.serv.be/stichting/publicatie/vlaamse-werkbaarheidsmonitor-2016-werknemers and research of Securex via https://press.securex.be/burn-out-eind-dertigers-en-voltijds-werkenden-lopen-hoogste-risico#.
 Eurostat, Employment rate by sex.
 See more: https://igvm-iefh.belgium.be/en.
 Proposal of Law changing the labour legislation concerning the birth leave, Parl. St. Kamer nr. 54/0991.
 See more: https://igvm-iefh.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/47%20-%20Vaderschapsverlof_publicatie_NL.pdf. 81,3% of the new fathers took up their birth leave, 80,9% of them used the total amount of 10 days. 10,8% of the respondents declared problems on the work floor due to the reaction of the employer (e.g. treat of dismissal) or the kind of work (e.g. no replacement by a colleague).
 Proposal of Law changing the Law on parental leave, Parl. St. Kamer nr. 54/0313, translated into a Law of 2 September 2018 (published on 26 September 2018).
 Proposal of Law to expand the right on parental leave, Parl. St. Kamer nr. 54/0310 and Proposal of Law changing the Law on motivated time credit, Parl. St. Kamer nr. 54/2730.
 Law of 2 September 2018 (published in 26 September 2018).