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Gaining flexibility in the labor market

In February 2017, Belgium adopted new legislation that creates more flexibility at work for both employers and employees. The ‘feasible and agile work’ law, also known as the Peeters law, is a step in the right direction to improve the country’s labor market flexibility.

Digitalization, globalization and changing consumer expectations are spurring companies to adjust their business models while employees want to better manage their work-life balance. To adapt to these changes, Belgium took a first step in acknowledging the importance of flexibility in the labor market by adopting the so-called Peeters law (Travail faisable et maniable/Werkbaar en wendbaar werk), which leaves companies room to pick and choose what works best for their business. Below, we summarize the three main highlights of this new legal framework.

Annualization and Overtime Hours

One of the law’s priorities is to create a framework which allows companies to adapt working times to their productivity cycles. The system allows for employees who work more hours in peak periods to be compensated with a lighter schedule in off-peak periods.

To avoid resorting to overtime hours in busy times, work hours can be annualized. Rather than calculating the average working hours per week – based on a 38-hour work week – an employee’s hours are averaged over a year. This provides companies greater leeway in organizing work schedules in high or low seasons. However, there is a daily limit of nine hours per day and 45 hours per week.

The ‘voluntary overtime hours’ provision allows employees to work up to 100 additional hours per year. Within the same legal framework, the employee can add these extra-hours to their ‘career savings’ account’ – a ‘piggybank’ of free time to enjoy later in their career.

Workers can also enjoy floating work hours, which means they can choose when to arrive and leave work during ‘floating periods’ – for example, between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., while keeping an eight-hours-per-day schedule. They are, however, required to stay in the office during ‘core’ hours.

Nightwork

The limitations on nightwork were a major handicap for companies working in e-commerce, which need to be able to rapidly fulfill customer orders. The Peeters law provides an exemption to the previous ban on nightwork. Logistics and other support services for e-commerce retailers can introduce night shifts – from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. However, the company must consult its workers if the schedule concerns hours between midnight and 5:00 a.m.

Occasional Telework

In this day and age, work is less dependent on an employee’s physical presence at the office. With current digital tools, an employee can remain productive while, for example, taking care of a sick child. This is why occasional telework is now regulated by law, which before was only the case for structural telework. The Peeters law now also provides a basis for the reimbursement of expenses and accident insurance. Occasional telework can be arranged in case of force majeure – for example, when a train strike occurs – or for personal and urgent reasons.

From Building Block to Vision

The new legislation is a step in the right direction. AmCham Belgium welcomes the new law which provides a legal framework for practices already widely used by companies. Yet, not only is the Peeters law a fraction of the initial proposal, the administrative burden remains a concern. Improving flexibility should not come at the cost of complexity.

We need to consider more ambitious measures to help companies be competitive and innovative in a fast-changing global marketplace – particularly when Belgium ranks 117th out of 138 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index on labor market flexibility.

“This new act legalizes certain long-held aspirations of both employees and employers, in most cases already put into practice on the work floor. It is now time to take the legislation to the next level and to proactively anticipate (future) business developments and changes.” - Stefan Nerinckx, Vice-Chair of the Human Resources Committee of AmCham Belgium

For this reason, AmCham Belgium recently launched a new Labor Market Flexibility Taskforce. Human resources experts are working on out-of-the-box ideas for labor market flexibility in Belgium – because future legislation should strive to be proactive rather than reactive. The Taskforce is preparing a position paper that outlines a vision for labor market flexibility in Belgium.

Should you be interested in contributing to this discussion, please contact Mr. Christophe Van Elewyck, Policy Coordinator, cvanelewyck@amcham.be.

AmCham Belgium applauds this first step that allows more flexibility in the workplace and awaits future reforms that help companies adapt and thrive in a changing world.

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