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June 02, 2023

Belgium Introduces The 4-Day Work Week

Thomas De Jongh

Background: The Belgian “Labour Deal”

On October 3rd, 2022, Belgium passed its so called “Labour Deal.” The goal of the Labour Deal is twofold: increasing the employment rate and providing workers with new opportunities to improve their work-life balance (and thus reduce the high burnout rate). “The goal is to give people and companies more freedom to arrange their work time,” Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in February 2022. “If you compare our country with others, you’ll often see we’re far less dynamic.” Belgium has set itself the objective of an employment rate of of 80% for people aged 20-64 by 2030. In order to achieve that objective, more than 540,000 additional people need to be employed, as reported by the Belgian statistical office. Given the limited number of unemployed people (272,000), inactive people will have to be (re)employed.

A part of the Labour Deal was the introduction of the 4-day work week, which provides full-time workers the right to request a 4-day work week. It allows both white-collar and blue-collar workers to work their usual hours in four longer workdays instead of five, while maintaining their current weekly working time and salary. A worker working 38 hours per week would thus be able to work 9.5 hours per day for 4 days and have an extra day off, without losing pay. 

Some key takeaways about the Belgian 4-day work week

Each full-time worker has the individual right to request the application of the 4-day work week for a period of maximum 6 months (but renewable without limitation). Although the 4-day work week is only possible upon an individual request of a worker, the scheme must be introduced collectively by means of a company collective bargaining agreement or the company’s handbook, both of which require consultation with the work force or its (union) representatives. The employer is entitled to refuse the worker’s request, provided the employer has compelling reasons to do so (e.g., business continuity). The specifics of the arrangement are reflected in an agreed upon addendum to the employment contract.

While the goal of the new legislation was to guarantee workers maintaining their salary and benefits, the shift to a 4-day work week has a (limited) negative impact on the worker’s salary package because some popular benefits (like representation allowances, commuting allowances and meal vouchers) are—due to social security legislation— directly linked to actually performed working days. Said social security legislation has not been modified as a result of the Labour Deal.

Not successful (yet?)

The 4-day work week intends to enhance the work-life balance of workers and mitigate the high burn-out rates that have been observed in recent years. Different stakeholders have, however, raised concerns regarding its implementation. For instance, quite a few employers have cited organizational constraints that could make the 4-day work week challenging to manage. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether workers will accept the trade-off between their work-life balance during the 4 working days and having an additional day off. According to a field study made 3 months into the new legislation among 35,000 employers covering 320,000 workers, only 5 in 1,000 (or 0.5%) workers are working a 4-day work week.

What other countries are doing

It is important to note that the Belgium’s Labor Deal was a national initiative and not driven by the EU. On the other hand, the pandemic did reignite conversations about flexible working arrangements in several countries. In its aftermath, Georges Engels, the Minister of Labor of Belgium’s neighboring country Luxembourg, criticized the Belgian initiative, stating his preference for a general reduction in working time spread over the entire working week. Some other countries which do not have the same 4-day work week legislation as Belgium do have legislation that allows workers to request a modification of their working time. The Netherlands, known to be more flexible than its neighboring country Belgium in terms of working time, already had legislation in place before the pandemic that allowed workers to request that their employer increase or reduce their working time. In 2016, the Dutch government also made it possible for workers to request a change of their working schedule and place of work. Under Dutch law, it could thus be possible to agree on a 4 day work week. Spain and Germany, who do not have an official 4-day work week like the one introduced in Belgium, also grant workers the right to request a change of working time.

Outlook for the future

Outlook for the future In Belgium, the 4-day work week is not successful (yet). This may come as no surprise since working 9.5 hours or more for 4 days, seems in a way contrary to the recent trend of focusing on work life balance. Furthermore, some employers doubt whether the extra work hours each day will be productive. Nevertheless, the new legislation is still very young—perhaps Belgian workers just need some more time to get used to a 3-day weekend

Thomas De Jongh

Founder, HR Legal

Thomas De Jongh is the founder of HR Legal in Antwerp, Belgium, which assists small to large companies, both local and international, with every HR-related matter, from individual hirings and dismissals to reorganizations and acquisitions, union relations, employee rights and responsibilities, and everything employmentrelated in between.

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