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Workable Work and the annualization of working time

By Pieter Nobels, Executive Director, People Advisory Services and Tim Raymaekers, Consultant, People Advisory Services, EY

On April 9, 2016, the Federal Government announced a measure that is of particular interest for employers in Belgium and which has provoked strong opposition from unions. The government will introduce legislation to create a more flexible working platform. This will take the form of a flexible work schedule which should become one of the headlines of the so-called ‘Workable Work’ program. This program aims at making a career in Belgium more flexible and sustainable, thus allowing employees to remain professionally active until a later retirement age.

Flexible work schedule

The idea behind the flexible work schedule would be achieved through the annualization of working time. In practice, this means that the maximum amount of hours an employee should work per week is calculated on an average yearly basis. That yearly average would remain 38 hours.

Nevertheless, certain daily and weekly thresholds should be respected as well. The employee can never be deployed for more than 9 hours per day or 45 hours per week, whereas under the present labor legislation these limits are set at 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week. Any excess above these thresholds will be treated as overtime, which is allowed up to a maximum of 143 hours.

Working timeObviously, the annualization of working time should allow greater flexibility for the employers, enabling them to better align resources with the workload.

But the benefits are not exclusively for the employer. By introducing a flexible working schedule, employers in Belgium will be able to deal more easily with fluctuations in the workload with the existing workforce. This will likely contribute to tip the balance in favor of hiring employees in the organization rather than relying on interims or a contingent workforce. 

On a side note, the expert reader familiar with Belgian labor law will be aware of the fact that the annualization of working time is not an entirely new concept. Indeed, it was already possible to push for an annualization of the working time with the appropriate approval from the collective bodies. Several joint committees have already introduced it through a collective labor agreement, among which Joint Committee 200 (the biggest clerk committee). In certain cases, it may also have been introduced via the work rules in cooperation with the Works’ Council.

In practice

One of the organizations that introduced a flex working schedule is EY Belgium.

Herman Schepers, Head of HR for Belgium, explains: “Our tax compliance business runs throughs seasons and associated peaks, where workload is notably driven by filing deadlines. Thanks to the constructive cooperation of our Works’ Council, we were able to set up a flex work system, whereby our employees have a schedule that fluctuates between 33, 38 and 43 hours, depending on the time of the year. As a compensation to our people, we always attempt to have at least a part of the holiday season under a 33 hour working schedule. This way, our employees have more free time during summer, so they can also benefit from the flexible work arrangement. It’s clearly a win-win solution!”

Next steps

The proposed measure must now be discussed in the joint employer and employee Consultation Committee, the so-called Group of 10, which could/should lead to a draft law by summer, although the proposed measure is strongly opposed at this time by the unions. However, as mentioned above, organizations that are eager to implement a flexible work schedule could, under certain conditions, already start with the set-up based on existing labor legislation.