by Jo Antoons, Managing Partner, and Wout Van Doren, Associate, Fragomen
The COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel bans, government closures and social distancing measures, all have an impact on foreign employees in Belgium and raise questions regarding their work and residence rights.
The Belgian authorities are taking a flexible and pragmatic approach that mitigates, to a large extent, the negative impact on foreign staff already present in Belgium. For new assignees, applications continue to be processed; however, travel and starting dates are being pushed back.
Return to Belgium is possible, but new arrivals are on hold unless essential
The European Union has imposed a ban on entry into the Schengen Area, initially for 30 days with a proposed extension until May 15. There are, however, important exemptions to this rule, notably for persons holding a Belgian residence permit (including all work-based permits) returning to Belgium.
All other non-Belgian nationals are covered by the ban even if they are in possession of a previously obtained visa, unless their travel is deemed essential. Travel is deemed to be essential for cross-border workers, medical staff, researchers, diplomats, passengers in transit, those travelling for imperative family reasons, as well as those in need of international protection or other humanitarian assistance.
Individuals who risk getting stuck in Belgium due to travel restrictions imposed by other countries can exceptionally apply for an extended stay and work authorization.
Applications for work-based residence permits are being processed
It is now possible to submit work authorization applications via e-mail in all three regions in Belgium (Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia). Previously, all applications had to be submitted via regular mail. All three regions have confirmed that they have taken measures to ensure continuation of service, but processing times may experience some delays.
Regional authorities have also shown flexibility with respect to supporting documents that are difficult to obtain due to government closures, such as medical certificates, police clearance documents and social security certificates of coverage. These remain mandatory but can be provided at a later stage.
Staff already present in Belgium should thus not encounter substantial difficulties renewing their residence permits. New applications also continue to be processed, but assignees will only be able to travel to Belgium and start working once the EU entry ban has been lifted.
Impact of working from home and temporary unemployment
Due to social distancing measures, numerous employees are currently working from home or are temporarily unemployed.
Working from home will not have a negative impact on the validity of work authorization, provided that the homeworking measures are temporary and due to the current situation surrounding COVID-19.
With respect to temporary unemployment, regional authorities have shown diverging degrees of flexibility when taking into account periods of unemployment for verification of minimum salary requirements.
How Fragomen can assist
Fragomen has created a unique microsite on the immigration impacts of COVID-19, which can be accessed by anyone free of charge. This site is updated on a daily basis and includes a daily updated tracker including more than 135 countries’ specific COVID-19 policies. You can access the free microsite at https://www.fragomen.com/about/news/immigration-update-coronavirus. In addition to the microsite, we have also developed a COVID-19 Impact Statement relating to the right to travel, work and reside in Belgium and an Impact Guide for HR and mobility teams, explaining Posted Worker Notifications (PWNs) and the impacts on social security.
Overall, Fragomen recommends companies to look towards the broader European workforce, both for urgent solutions and in order to prepare to remobilize when travel bans are gradually lifted – considering that some immigration authorities in Europe will be bogged down in a backlog of paperwork due to government closure.
Finally, the current crisis shines a light on global mobility. Companies should take advantage of this new insight to be in touch with stakeholders and devise contingency policies that reflect lessons learned.