Expatica news

Belgium’s 40-hour week debate flares up

19 August 2004

BRUSSELS – The management of Liege-based smelting works Marichal Ketin is attempting to set a Belgian precedent by raising the firm’s work week to 40 hours without a pay rise, it was widely reported Thursday.

Managers have asked the factory’s 140 employees to consider the move in an effort to keep the works afloat and save their jobs.

“In the past six months we have seen a phenomenal rise in the cost of raw materials,” Vincent Leconte, the company’s chief executive, told La Libre Belgique. This will translated into a loss of EUR 1.7 million for 2003-2004, compared to a break-even situation the year before.

Workers at the factory were due to discuss the matter Thursday but unions are opposed.

“The management presented us with a negative picture of the company but only put one solution on the table, a 40-hour week. For us this is a no,” said one union official.

The question is not just confined to Marichal Ketin. Debate is raging across Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands as to whether working hours should be increased to make European companies more competitive.

This is particularly important against a backdrop of emerging industrialised countries that have fewer restrictions on working hours.

But the Belgian federation of companies has pointed to alternatives. Salary alterations and lower social contributions could hold the key, they argue.

Former Belgian economy minister and professor Mark Eyskens has also tried to give some direction to the debate.

“We already work 38 to 39 hours a week when you count overtime,” he said. “The real problem is the amount we work over the course of an entire career. We have the lowest working rate in Europe.”

Fixed salaries for employment sectors were also damaging, he said, as this penalises more fragile companies while boosting stronger ones. “We need to negotiate salaries case by case.”

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Belgian news