Located in western Europe, the Kingdom of Belgium is a small sovereign nation in western Europe located between France and the Netherlands, with Luxembourg and Germany to its east and 68 kilometers (42 miles) of coastline along the North Sea. Belgium is divided into three nearly autonomous regions, each with its own official language. Dutch is spoken in the region of Flanders in the north, and French in Wallonia, in the south. Both languages are official in the capital which is Brussels, and German is spoken in a small area in the east of the country near the German border. The country’s workforce is highly skilled and productive. Nearly three quarters of Belgium’s workforce is employed in the service sector, with banking and financial services being particularly important. Steel, metals and metal processing, and chemicals are among the country’s major industries. Belgium is also a major center of international trade and commerce. The port of Antwerp, located 80 kilometers (50 miles) inland along the Scheldt River, is one of the busiest ports in Europe and among the 20 busiest in the world, and the country is well connected to the rest of Europe by a modern road and rail network. One of the founding members of the European Union (which chose Brussels as its capital), Belgium offers a strategic geographic location and political stability to companies considering international expansion in Europe.
Employment contracts in Belgium can be verbal or written, but a written contract is the usual practice, and certain types of contracts must be in writing. These include contracts for a fixed term, part-time or temporary work and for remote work. Noncompete clauses, confidentiality clauses, and certain other conditions related to employment must also be in writing. Written employment agreements must be in French in the Walloon region of Belgium, Dutch in the Flemish region or German in the German-speaking region. In the Brussels region, the contract should be in either Dutch or French, depending on the language the employee normally uses. In many cases, some contract terms will be determined by a collective bargaining agreement. Several different types of employment contracts that are common in Belgium. The indefinite, or open-ended contract, is the most common type. Fixed-term contracts can be established for most any reason and for whatever length of time the employer and employee agree on. Fixed-term contracts expire on a specific date or when a specified event occurs (generally the completion of a task, e.g., when the construction of a particular building is complete.)If the employer and employee continue working together after the fixed-term contract has expired, the contract will be automatically converted to an indefinite contract.
The standard work week in Belgium is 38 hours or eight hours a day. Employees may work 9.5 hours per day if they work no more than 5.5 days per week, 10 hours if the employee resides a great distance from their workplace and as a result is away from their residence more than 14 hours on a workday, and under limited circumstances, such as for shift work, employees can work up to 12 hours a day. Employees can also work an alternative schedule, such as a 39-hour week and receive six days of rest per year as compensation, or a 40-hour week with 12 days of rest. Collective bargaining agreements can provide for a reduced work week. Under most circumstances, employees many only work between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Exceptions exist for work that must be done at night, such as work in hotels and restaurants and some transportation jobs, among others. Work at night may also be permitted by royal decree for certain sectors, companies, or occupations when there is a pressing need. Work is generally prohibited on Sundays, as well, but in practice there are many exceptions for businesses that must operate on Sundays for the country to function. Overtime is normally allowed only when there is a compelling need and limited to 78 hours in three months or 91 hours per year. Employees may also choose to work “voluntary overtime” of up to 100 hours per year, subject to limits. A collective bargaining agreement may allow for up to 350 hours of voluntary overtime for year. Voluntary overtime arrangements should be set out in a written agreement. Overtime, including voluntary overtime, is paid at a percentage of the employee’s basic rate. If an employee works their usual hours on a Sunday or holiday, they are compensated at their basic hourly rate. Overtime worked on a Sunday or holiday is compensated at a higher percentage of the basic rate.
Employees are entitled to 30 days of paid sick leave. Employees must immediately inform their employer that they are unable to work due to an illness and provide a medical certificate. Employers may ask for an independent medical officer to verify the employee’s inability to work. In general, white collar employees are paid their normal salary by their employer during the first 30 days of an illness. After 30 days, employees can receive sick benefits through Belgium’s subsidized health insurance system. If the employee’s illness lasts over a year, the employee may be eligible for a government invalidity benefit. Employees in Belgium may take time off to care for others in several circumstances. If a member of the employee’s household or family (within two degrees) is seriously ill, the employee may take up to one year of leave to care for them, in blocks of time lasting from one to three months. The employee may also cut back to working 80% or 50% of their usual hours for up to two years, also in one to three month blocks. Generally, the employee should notify the employer in writing seven days in advance. The employer may defer the leave if there is a compelling business reason but may not refuse to grant it. Leave is also available for employees to provide palliative care to someone who is dying. Employees may also use their right to a “time credit” (called a “career break” for public sector employees) for these purposes.
Employees in Belgium are eligible for maternity leave and maternity benefits if they have worked 120 days out of the six months before the start of the maternity rest period, have made a minimum required amount of social security contributions, and meet a few other conditions. An expectant mother is entitled to up to six weeks of maternity leave before the expected birth date. She is only required to take the final week. After giving birth, the mother receives nine weeks of leave, and if she did not use the full six weeks before giving birth, she may take the unused time after the birth. She is also entitled to daily breastfeeding breaks after she returns to work until her child is nine months old. The father or other adult who will be raising the child with the mother also is entitled to paternity leave, which must be taken no later than four months after the child’s birth. Adoptive parents receive six weeks of leave, to be taken within two months.
Minimum wages in Belgium are set by collective bargaining agreements, generally based on sector and industry. They also vary somewhat across the different regions of the country. Minimum annual salary increases generally are determined by collective bargaining agreements at the national, sector and industry level. For example, the Joint Industrial Committee 200 (JIC 200), representing more than 450,000 white collar employees in Belgium, performs a regular review of salaries and recommends a minimum adjustment based on the cost of living index. This is referred to as the salary indexation. Bonuses are common, with employees frequently receiving a 13th or 14th month end of year bonus.
When a public holiday falls on a weekend, employees can take a weekday as leave. In addition to paid public holidays, employees in Belgium generally receive 20 days of paid annual leave after one year of service if they work a five-day week, or 24 days if they work six days per week. Employees can take leave during the first year of employment, but this will usually reduce their 13th-month bonus. Collective bargaining agreements may give employees additional annual leave. Employees who are younger than 25, have completed their studies, and have worked for at least one month in the first year after graduation are entitled to supplemental “youth leave.” This leave may be up to four weeks and, when combined with the partial annual leave allowance the employee has earned in their shortened “work year,” brings the employee’s leave entitlement up to the full 20 or 24 days. The youth leave days are paid through a government benefit. Employees past the age of 50 who have resumed working after a period of unemployment are entitled to supplemental “senior citizen’s leave.” Like youth leave, this leave brings the employee’s annual leave allowance up to the full 20 or 24 days the employee would be entitled to and is paid at 65% of the employee’s usual pay up to a ceiling.
Belgium provides subsidized health care. Private insurance is also available.
Employment contracts in Belgium can be terminated at the end of a fixed term contract, by mutual agreement, by the employer (with or without cause) or by the employee. Fixed-term contracts will automatically end on the date specified. They may be renewed up to four times, each for at least three months, for no longer than three years total and with no breaks between each contract. Employers may be required to get approval for fixed-term contracts of longer duration. Employers can terminate any employment relationship, including a fixed-term contract that has not yet reached its end date, without notice if the employee has engaged in serious misconduct. The employer must notify employees of the termination for serious misconduct within three working days of learning about the misconduct. It is strongly recommended that the notice of termination be in writing and sent by registered mail. Employees may also resign immediately in the event of serious misconduct by their employer. Probation periods are generally not allowed in Belgium other than for some temporary and student workers. The probation period for these workers are three days, but the parties can agree on fewer days or no probation period. Employment may be terminated during the probation period without notice. Absent serious employee misconduct or expiration of a fixed-term contract, employers are required to provide employees with a written notice of termination. In most cases, the employer is not required to provide a reason for the termination unless the employee asks. The notice of termination should be sent by registered mail or bailiff’s writ.
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