Information provided by OKRA, trefpunt 55+ and Vlaamse Ouderenraad vzw and desk research
Against this trend, a collective agreement 104 concluded by the social partners proposes the adoption of a plan to maintain or increase the number of employees aged 45 and over in private companies. The measures adopted can be selection and recruitment procedures, development of skills and qualifications, career development and vocational guidance, organisation of working time and conditions, health and safety at work and/or recognition of the skills obtained. The Works Council, the Trade Union Delegations or the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work, does an annual evaluation of this plan. Workers can make suggestions or alternative proposals and the employers are obliged either to take up these proposals or to give written reasons why a proposal will not be taken up. A competent social inspectorate will then check these reasons.
The possibilities of reviewing, rethinking and adapting the careers of older workers have been thought out and planned mainly for the private sector where this collective agreement plays an important role. Other specific aspects of career management are being explored and developed. For example, there are several existing initiatives supporting lifelong learning and adult skills (see the 2021 barometer on this topic). For instance, the “congé-éducation payé” allows employees in the private sector who wish to undertake training to benefit from paid educational leave. In this way, they can follow their training, during or outside working hours, and be paid as usual.
Finally, there are some notable measures aimed at achieving greater equality of career opportunities between men and women. Among them, employers have to fill in a yearly “social balance sheet” providing detailed data by gender on the number of workers, full-time and part-time, salaries, benefits in addition to salaries, salary gap, level of education, professional category and hierarchy, training opportunities. There is then a national collective agreement that obliges employers to inform the Works Council or Trade Union Delegations of this data, to discuss it with them and to provide information on future developments to improve equal opportunities.
In order to prevent unemployment among older workers, Belgian labour law provides for severance payments that can often amount to several years’ salary, thus discouraging the dismissal of older workers. This generally applies to white-collar workers and, since 2013, partially to blue-collar workers. Furthermore, for the private sector, the national collective agreement CAO 82 concluded between the social partners and made compulsory by law for all companies in all branches, provides for the obligation to offer all workers over 45 years of age who are made redundant outplacement support by an external agency paid by the employer. The agreement states that ‘the task of professional reintegration implies that one or more of the following services and advice be provided: psychological counselling, the establishment of a personal assessment and/or assistance in the development and implementation of a job search campaign, assistance in negotiating a new employment contract, support for integration into the new working environment and, finally, logistical and administrative support. There is also the ‘brugpensioen’, a mechanism in the social security system that links unemployment to pension, aiming to support people who receive unemployment benefits supplemented by a monthly contribution from their former employer, thus guaranteeing 80% of net salary until retirement age.
Finally, retirements can be supported internally. This is the case in private companies and NGOs. The Belgian government has taken measures to allow people to work after pensionable age, by lifting some restrictions on combining pension with salary. A system for working after pensionable age exists in a limited number of sectors such as the catering industry. It is a system called “flexi-jobs” which allows older workers to earn money without paying taxes, while reducing their employer’s social security contributions. However, it does not give any entitlement to social security in the event of illness or unemployment and does not contribute to pension contributions.
Three Belgian federal laws constitute anti-discrimination legislation: the “Gender Law”, the “Anti-Racism Law” and the “Anti-Discrimination Law”. This anti-discrimination legislation applies to different areas of public life, including the labour market. In the context of employment, two collective agreements establish principles of equal treatment in the workplace, including a prohibition on the employer making a distinction on the basis of age during the recruitment process.
The Belgian cooperation agreement between the Federal State, the Regions and the Communities provides for the mission of Unia, an independent institution, to fight against discrimination and defend equal opportunities in Belgium. Unia has several roles. It offers individual support and guidance to people who feel discriminated against and listens to witnesses of discrimination via a reporting form or a toll-free number. Unia’s mission is also to raise awareness and prevent discrimination. To this end, the organisation runs information and awareness campaigns and organises tailor-made training for employers who wish to implement a diversity policy. Through a brochure updated in 2019, Unia recalls the legal context and concrete examples of age discrimination in the labour market. An online training module called “eDiv” enables employers to learn how to apply the legislation in their daily work. This online support tool compiles 150 situations, each with a legal response and advice for the manager.
The Unia website has a search page with Belgian case law that provides access to several cases of age discrimination in the labour market. These include cases of age discrimination in the recruitment process. As an example, we can observe the decision of the Labour Court of Wavre on 19 February 2019 where a person over 50 years old responds to a job offer and is rejected by referring to his age and for “lack of computer skills” while the successful candidate, aged 25, seems to have the same level of computer skills. Other cases are more related to unlawful dismissals. Among them, the decision of the court of Liège on 16 May 2018 condemns an orchestra that dismissed its employees over 60 years old who “allegedly” have health problems that could affect the artistic quality of the ensemble, with the payment of additional unemployment benefits.
Among the initiatives that combat preconceived ideas and change the way people look at ageing is the documentary REBELS by Ann Peuteman and Brecht Vanhoenacker. In this documentary, the character of Nadia, who stubbornly continues to apply for jobs without success, illustrates the negative view of ageing and of being sidelined by society. She reminds us of the right to work at an advanced age.
Belgian labour law provides for a special time-credit scheme called “landingsbanen” allowing employees aged 55 and over to work up to half-time, with the aim of ensuring a working environment adapted to their needs. To supplement their wages, they receive an allowance for the days off. Thanks to the time-credit, older workers can have more free time to meet their family obligations, which is not insignificant for female careers, as more women are informal carers and are therefore more often forced into early retirement.
In several sectors, a range of measures have been taken to compensate for the difficulties associated with arduous occupations to ensure the health and safety of older workers. In this respect, a collective agreement on the exemption from work in the context of end-of-career issues and the granting of additional leave for certain categories of staff in the care sector was concluded in 2005 within the Joint Committee on Health Services and made compulsory in 2008. Following this adoption, records show a substantial increase in older workers remaining at work.
Another sector is currently evaluating its own measures to create easier working conditions in order to keep people at work for longer: the food industry. Currently, older workers in the food industry can benefit from end-of-career jobs and a supplementary pension to facilitate the end of their careers.
Finally, all companies in the chemical, plastics and life sciences sector have been contributing to the demografiefonds since 2016. A committee of employers and employees has created an action plan promoting better work opportunities for older workers at company level which receives financial support from the fund. The result is a wide variety of different measures at company level supported by the sector.
The issue of psychosocial risks is part of the law on well-being at work via the laws of 28 February 2014 and 28 March 2014 which set a general framework for the prevention of psychosocial risks at work. In this context, the employer is obliged to take the necessary measures to prevent psychosocial risks at work, to prevent the damage arising from these risks or to limit this damage. The federal government is currently working on a national action plan to improve the well-being of workers at work 2022 – 2027. This is the transposition at Belgian level of the European Strategic Framework for Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027 and pays particular attention to the prevention of psychosocial risks.
Among the policies or services designed to tackle the digital gap in a context of digitalisation, the demografiefonds for the chemical, plastics and life sciences sector mentioned previously include education projects to digital tools or practices based on digital technologies to ensure better conditions for older workers through, for instance, the use of a digital platform to ease promotion of activities or even manual work. Finally, the Edusprong project, part of the Flemish Resilience Plan aims to give a boost to adult education, with the overall objective of increasing the chances of success in the labour market. Edusprong encourages every Fleming to become a lifelong learner and to renew and improve adult education provision, including the strengthening of digital skills.
Policy Officer on Employment and European Parliament Liaison
Sarah is in charge of AGE’s policy activities in the fields of employment, participation and active citizenship in old age. She also monitors EU initiatives on volunteering for older people and lifelong learning. She is responsible for the Task Force dedicated to on Employment, participation and active citizenship. Sarah also coordinates AGE’s relations with the European Parliament (EP).