Planning on moving to Belgium? Make sure you know the legal lay of the land in your new home before signing your next employment contract.
There are many Belgian labour laws regarding your contract of employment in Belgium. Here are some expert tips on negotiating your Belgian employment contract and information about the Belgian minimum wage.
Labor law in Belgium
Once you have found a job, there can be a probationary period of up to two weeks for blue-collar workers, and anywhere between one and six months for white-collar workers if the annual wage does not exceed around EUR 36–37,000. White-collar employees earning more than this may have a trial period of up to 12 months. During this period, either side can terminate the employment within seven days’ notice.
The average working week is 38 hours, although longer working hours are common, particularly in international institutions. Although Belgian labor law contains a general prohibition against overtime, there are exceptions where overtime regulations do not apply; you may not always receive time off in lieu or compensation for working overtime, although in most cases compensation should legally apply.
In Belgium, you must work for one year before any holiday entitlement is paid. It is then calculated on the basis of how many months you were in the job during the previous calendar year. If you worked a full calendar year, you are then entitled to a minimum of 20 days. In addition, there are 10 legal holidays in Belgium, many of them religious days, plus regional holidays.
Deductions from your salary will take the form of social contributions and withholding tax. Social contributions are collected by the National Social Security Office (NSSO) and cover replacement income (pensions, unemployment assistance, etc.) and supplementary income (health care, family allowances, etc.). These equated to 13.07 percent of gross salary for private sector employees in 2016. Withholding tax is based on gross taxable income. The rate varies depending on a number of quite complex rules.
An employment contract is a contract by which a person, the worker, undertakes to work, in exchange for a salary, for another person, the employer, and to do so under his authority. The four essential elements in an employment contract are, therefore: the contract, the work, the salary and the employer’s authority (the subordination relation).
The elements of the employment contract (for instance, the nature of the work, a description of duties, if this has been set down in the contract, the working hours and the place where the work is to be performed) cannot be unilaterally modified by the employer or by the worker. The contract must be performed under the conditions, at the time and in the place agreed. Any changes in the employment contract can only be made with the consent of both parties. If the employer or worker unilaterally modifies one of the essential elements of the contract, this is deemed to be the same thing as terminating the employment contract. The employer or worker can then take note of the termination and ask for payment of compensation in lieu of notice. Not all amendments are initialled. The employer, who is in charge of managing the company, can restructure and reorganise the contract if necessary for economic reasons provided it does not significantly alter an essential element of the employment contract.
The law on employment contracts states that any clause by which the employer reserves the right to modify the working conditions unilaterally is null and void.
A permanent employment contract does not have to be stated in writing. Conversely, any other employment contracts and contractual clauses must be stated in writing.
In practice, however, written employment contracts are often used to prevent problems regarding proof.
Employment contracts for which a written document is required:
- Student employment contract
- Fixed-term contract or contract for specific work
- Replacement contract
- Part-time contract
- Contract for the performance of temporary work
- Contract employing a domestic worker
Clauses which must be stated in writing:
- Trial clause
- Non-competition clause.
Use of languages in contracts
The use of languages in industrial relations is regulated in Belgium. Dutch must be used when the employer has his headquarters in the Dutch-speaking region, French when it is in the French-speaking region, and German when it is in the German-speaking region. Undertakings established in the bilingual Brussels Capital Region must draw up documents in Dutch for Dutch-speaking staff and in French for French-speaking staff.
Amendments of employment contracts
If a contract is amended and you are uncertain of the need for a separately written amendment: consult a trade union. The situation is in itself a rare one.
The best thing is to set down in a new contract that it is an extension to or amendment of a previous contract. If you have several contracts: keep all of them. The total time worked at a company can be important in calculating notice periods.
Changes to the text must be initialled by both parties in the margin. The number of changes must be indicated next to the signatures. Text included below the signatures is not valid. References are only valid if referred to in the text. This also applies to information on the reverse of a contract: only valid if referred to in the text above the signature. You should be given an original copy of the employment contract straight away.
For more information about the procedures applicable to a given firm, see the company regulations. Ask for your copy or see where they can be viewed.
End of employment
Employment may come to an end for various reasons. In most cases, either the employer or the employee gives notice. Other possibilities are the expiry of the agreed period of employment, death, dismissal for serious misconduct, force majeure, or mutual agreement. Protected workers, such as trade union representatives, prevention advisers, workers on paternity leave and pregnant women, cannot be dismissed. In some cases, dismissal is possible only if a severance payment is made. Sometimes a contract is suspended on account of a temporary instance of force majeure, such as inclement weather or a fire. If the suspension is short-term, the employer pays; otherwise, payment is the responsibility of the unemployment office.
Termination of contract: resignation or dismissal
Either the employer or the employee may terminate an open-ended employment contract at any time, provided certain formalities are observed. As a rule, fixed-term contracts may not be terminated.
A notice must be given in writing and indicate the start and duration of the period of notice. This period differs according to whether you are a manual worker or a white-collar worker, whether the employee hands in his or her notice (resignation) or whether the employer gives notice (dismissal). It is possible for the notice not to be worked, in which case it is replaced by a one-off payment, the amount of which is equivalent to the salary which would have been paid or received during this period.
For manual workers
The period of notice varies according to seniority.
In the event of dismissal: four weeks if the worker has less than 20 years’ service, and eight weeks if the worker has more than 20 years’ service.
In the event of resignation, the worker must give two weeks’ notice if he/she has less than 20 years’ service, and four weeks if he/she has more than 20 years’ service.
The period of notice begins on the Monday following the week in which notice is given.
For white-collar workers
Periods of notice vary according to the employee’s seniority and salary.
Where the gross annual salary does not exceed €25,277, the period of notice to be given by the employer is at least three months for an employee with less than five years’ service. This period is increased by three months for each additional period of five years’ service. In the event of resignation, the period of notice corresponds to half the notice in case of dismissal but may not exceed three months.
Where the salary exceeds €25,277, the periods of notice are fixed by an agreement entered into at the time notice is given.
The period of notice begins on the first day of the month following that in which notice is given.
In the case of dismissal by the employer, the employee is entitled to reduce the period of notice by giving ‘counter-notice’ of his or her own. The employee is also entitled to leave for seeking a new job.
Unemployment benefit is applied for at the employee’s place of residence on termination of the contract. If notice was given by the employee, a specified period must, as a rule, elapse before unemployment benefit is payable in Belgium.
Annual leave in the private sector
In the private sector, the length of your holidays is proportional to the number of days you actually worked (and the days of inactivity regarded as equivalent to working days, for instance sick leave) during the year preceding the year in which you take your holidays. If you worked a full year, you are legally entitled to twenty days the following year in a regime consisting of a five-day week, and to 24 days in a regime consisting of a six-day week.
These holidays entitle you to a holiday bonus:
- If you are a worker or salaried artiste, your holiday bonus is paid by a holiday fund or by the National Annual Holiday Office (Office national des vacances annuelles – ONVA). The amount depends on the salary you earned during the year preceding the one in which you are taking the holidays. The amount corresponds to 15.38 percent of the salary you earned the previous year.
- If you are an employee, your employer pays you the holiday bonus directly. It includes the salary normally owed for the holiday period plus a supplement, per month, worked (including sick leave) the previous year, equal to 1/12th of 92 percent of your gross salary for the month during which your holidays commence. As a general rule it is paid when you take your main holidays, and at the earliest on the first working day of May of the year of the holidays.
Annual leave in the public sector
In the public sector, the number of days to which you are entitled depends on your age and the amount of work done in the current year. These holidays entitle you to a bonus you receive in the month of May, which consists of a fixed part and a variable part.
Leave of absence
You are entitled to leave of absence from your work, on your normal salary, for family events, to comply with civic obligations and civil missions and if you have to appear in court. To receive your salary, you must inform your employer in advance of your absence and, if you are unable to do so, you must inform him as soon as possible.
Leave for imperative reasons
You may also take leave of absence for imperious reasons, which means any unforeseeable event requiring your urgent and indispensable intervention, provided that the performance of the employment contract makes this intervention impossible (e.g. an accident suffered by someone living with you, fire damage to your home, etc.
Such leave cannot last longer than 10 working days during the calendar year. This leave is not paid unless otherwise agreed between the employer and the worker.
Career break in the context of leave for palliative care or medical assistance: most workers can take a career break to provide palliative care or to provide assistance or care to a family member suffering from a serious illness.
Maternity leave, paternity leave, parental leave, and adoption leave
A pregnant worker is entitled to maternity leave. The parents can also take advantage of different arrangements to look after new arrivals.
Paid education leave
If you are working in the private sector and want to do a training course, you can benefit under the paid education leave system which allows you to take leave which is paid as usual while following a training course during or outside your working hours. The leave is paid by your employer at the usual dates. The employer may obtain reimbursement for these hours from the Federal Public Service for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue under certain conditions. The training course may have a professional purpose without being directly linked to your current position, but it can also be of a general nature. There are also specific regulations for workers preparing for final secondary school examinations before the central examining board, for SME employees and for certain part-time workers.
If you want to take a temporary, partial or complete career break, there are several possibilities.
Time credit in the private sector: in the private sector, time credit enables you to take a temporary career break and to receive an ONEM allowance during this period. You can either suspend your employment contract completely, whether you work full-time or part-time, or you can reduce your working hours to part-time, or you can reduce your working hours by 1/5. This system replaces the old system of career breaks which is still applicable in the public sector.
Complete break and reduction of working hours to part-time
Can last for at least three months and at most one year. This maximum period may be extended to five years if a sectoral or company collective agreement provides for this. To obtain a complete break, you must have been employed by your employer for at least 12 months during the 15 months preceding the notice given. If you want to take a part-time break, you must have been employed at least 3/4 time during the year preceding the notice given.
Regardless of your age, you can also obtain a reduction of one day or two half-days per week if you are in a full-time job spread over five days. This reduction by 1/5th can last from six months to five years. To do this, you must have been employed by your employer for the five years preceding the notice given to your employer and you must have been employed full-time for the 12 months preceding this notice. A special system for reducing working hours has been introduced for workers aged at least 50.
Career break in the public sector: in the public sector, you can take a temporary career break and receive an ONEM allowance during this break. Under this system, you can stop working completely, whether you are working part-time or full-time, or you can reduce your working hours to part-time, or you can reduce your working hours by 1/5, by 1/4 or by 1/3. The career break can last from at least three months to at most six years. A special system for reducing working hours has been introduced for workers aged at least 50.
If the various possibilities of reducing working hours described above do not suit you, there is another solution: part-time work. When you work part-time you are subject to the general social security regime, with some exceptions, and to the labour regulation applicable to part-time workers. In the case of part-time work, normal working hours must be less than those of a full-time worker in a comparable situation (calculated on a weekly basis or based on an average over a reference period).