An analysis of non-standard forms of employment in Belgium

The changes that society and the economy have been going through (globalisation, expansion of the tertiary sector, digitalisation, etc.) for many years are leading to a gradual transformation of the labour market. The norm (which is full-time salaried employment with a permanent contract) is gradually giving way to other types of employment, like temporary contracts, self-employment and part-time work. In Belgium, the development of these forms of employment has not generally been accompanied by a worsening of working conditions, though this basic finding needs to be qualified somewhat.

Self-employment is more widespread in Belgium than in the EU (respectively 17 % of total employment in Belgium and 15 % in the EU), and contrary to the European trend, is showing a slight increase on the back of a whole host of factors, notably the dynamism of the liberal professions, successive improvements to the social security regime, the possibility of combining retirement pension with income under self-employed status, the constantly growing attraction of flexibility, etc. Typically, the self-employed have much longer working hours than employees and they face a much higher risk of poverty. Claiming a very high job satisfaction rate, the majority of self-employed people do not want to change status.

Compared with the European average, the proportion of temporary contracts is low in Belgium, where nine out of ten salaried employees have a permanent contract (compared with 86 % in the EU). In terms of trends, over the last 15 years, the proportion of temporary contracts in salaried employment scarcely changed up to the economic recovery in 2014. Since then, it has been rising steadily. This shift coincides with the scrapping of the ‘trial period’ clause that came about when the employment status of blue-collar and white-collar workers was harmonised, with many employers since preferring to first offer temporary contracts to see whether the worker matches the profile sought, especially in the case of young people. Unlike self-employed or part-time status, working under a temporary contract is rarely what employees would choose and if it does not lead to a permanent contract, the result is greater instability and a higher risk of poverty.

In Belgium, part-time work is more common than in the EU as a whole (25 % of total employment in Belgium, compared with 19 % in the EU). The country’s high proportion can be associated with the existence of various arrangements like leave for specific purposes, career breaks, time-credit, etc.. Unlike other European countries, working part-time is a choice made by workers themselves in most cases: only 2 % do so involuntarily, compared with 5 % in the EU). Even though this proportion is only very small, it is still worth noting that part-time work concerns four times more women than men, notably because nowadays women are even more closely involved in their children’s education and the housework than men. Part-time jobs are also more widely used towards the end of careers in order to reduce working time prior to retirement.