In February 2022, it was announced that workers in Belgium would be entitled to request a four-day working week.
In addition, Belgian workers will also be permitted to switch off their devices and not engage with any work-related calls or emails outside of business hours without being penalized in any way. This follows on from an earlier directive which gave federal civil servants the “right to disconnect” and not respond to telephone calls or emails outside of working hours.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the rationale behind the reform package agreed to by the multi-party coalition government was to build an economy “that is more innovative, sustainable and digital” as the country attempts to get business back on track in the wake of covid.
Moving to a four-day working week will not, however, be compulsory, and the decision to do so will fall to workers rather than employers, with the latter having to provide “solid reasons” in writing for refusing to grant a request.
In addition, employees will also be able to request more flexible schedules at work, while employers will be required to provide notice of any changes to workers’ schedules at least 7 days in advance.
It is anticipated that these changes will mean that Belgians are able to achieve a better work-life balance, with the country as a whole becoming more productive.
Other potential benefits include a reduction in commuting times with less traffic on the roads and fewer passengers on public transport, as well as healthier family relationships, with parents (including those who are separated and therefore share custody) able to spend more time with their children.
At the same time, it is also hoped that the move will increase the proportion of people in employment in Belgium to 80% by 2030, up from the current rate of just over 70%.
What does Belgium’s new working hours directive mean in practice?
Belgium employees working 38 hours a week will still be required to do so under the new directive, but they will be permitted to work for longer each day and thus condense the workweek into four days. The additional day off is designed to compensate for the longer working day.
Initially, employees can trial working a shortened week for a period of six months, after which they can either continue with the new arrangement or return to the conventional five-day working week.
The new law will (at least initially) only apply to businesses with more than 20 employees, while the right to disconnect from 11pm to 5am each day is also expected to be included in future collective bargaining agreements between employers and unions.
Other changes to employment law in Belgium include workers in the gig economy (e.g., who work for Uber or food delivery services, etc.) receiving insurance for workplace injuries, as per new European Commission guidance on what is known as platform work.
There will also be additional regulations put in place regarding how freelance work or self-employment is classified, as well as new arrangements for people who work night shifts, including penalty rates only coming into effect after midnight, rather than from 8pm which is currently the case.
However, at this stage it would appear there are no changes to the European Union Working Time Directive being planned. Currently, the EU sets a limit to weekly working hours (currently a maximum of 48 hours per week), sets out the conditions for worker rest breaks (daily and weekly), while also laying down directions for workers’ paid annual leave requirements in member states.
Other countries trailing a reduced working week
Other countries and jurisdictions around the world are also experimenting with or have already instituted reduced hour working weeks, although not along the same lines as Belgium.
These include Scotland, where a trial is being planned for 2023 which will see workers’ hours reduced by 20%, but with no loss in wages. Wales is currently considering a similar trial for public sector workers.
Spain is trialing a 32-hour working week condensed into four days, again without any impact on workers’ compensation, while Iceland conducted several similar trials between 2015 and 2019, with the result that around 90% of the population in Iceland now enjoy a shorter working week.
In the United Arab Emirates, a 4½ day working week was introduced in 2022, with most people working 6 hours a day Monday to Thursday and clocking off at noon on Fridays.
In a similar vein, Portugal has previously made it illegal for bosses to contact employees by phone or online outside of working hours.
Individual companies in New Zealand, Germany and Japan are also experimenting with reduced working hours, incorporating a range of different models.
News Source: EU Reporter