Belgium becomes the latest country to adopt a 4-day workweek

Belgian employees won the right to perform a full workweek in four days instead of the usual five without loss of salary, part of an agreement that aims to make Belgium’s notoriously rigid labor market more flexible.

Employers will still have the right to turn down employees’ requests for a condensed workweek, on condition they explain their refusal in writing, Deputy Prime Minister and Labor Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne said Tuesday in Brussels. For companies, it will become easier to introduce evening and night work without prior agreement from all labor unions.

“The goal is to give people and companies more freedom to arrange their work time,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Tuesday in Brussels. “If you compare our country with others, you’ll often see we’re far less dynamic.”

Only about 71 out of 100 Belgians in the age group from 20 to 64 years have a job, fewer than the euro-area average of about 73 and a full 10 percentage points less than in neighboring countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, according to Eurostat data for the third quarter of 2021. Belgium’s seven-party federal coalition agreement set a goal for an employment rate of 80% by 2030, a panacea that would serve to keep its legal pensions affordable or finance future tax cuts.

A four-day week will help women caring for children and aging parents maintain a work-life balance, but it will also benefit the labor market, said Beatrice Delfin-Diaz, president of the Belgian Association of Women Business Leaders.

Many employers, however, won’t be able to navigate the maze of new procedural rules, according to the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium which represents more than 50,000 companies.

“Instead of creating more possibilities for employees, what we see is that the government provides for a number of additional conditions which will very likely discourage the employers” from entering into these kind of arrangements, said Monica De Jonghe, director of the federation.

Following the pandemic, the four-day week idea is catching on across the world, with the U.K. starting a six-month program in June, with about 30 companies that have so far signed up for the trial. Similar programs are set to start in the U.S. and Ireland, with more planned for Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The shorter workweek has been an overwhelming success, researchers in Iceland found.

The Belgian government also introduced new rules for platform workers, setting out criteria for designating them as employees regardless of what they are called in their contract. According to Minister of Social Affairs Frank Vandenbroucke, the Belgian legislation will be modeled on the European Commission’s proposal from December for gig workers.

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