Workers in Belgium will soon be able to request a four-day work week as part of a series of labor market reforms announced on Tuesday.
The package of reforms agreed upon by the country's multi-party government also includes the Leave Me Alone Act. Employees have the right to turn off their work devices and ignore work-related messages after hours without fear of reprisals.
"We have two difficult years behind us. With this agreement, we are setting an example for an economy that is more innovative, more sustainable and more digital. The goal is to empower people and companies," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said at a press conference to announce the reform package.
Workers in the gig economy will also get stronger legal protections under the new rules, while full-time workers will be able to arrange flexible working hours.
Translating the reforms into law could take months, however, as the bill must go through multiple readings by federal lawmakers before it can be passed.
A significant part of the new Belgian labor reforms affects the work-life balance of workers in both the public and private sectors.
The draft of the reform package adopted by the Belgian federal government provides that employees can apply for a four-day week.
"This must be done at the request of the employee, and companies must give good reasons for any refusal," said Belgian Labor Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne at the press conference.
A government spokesman confirmed to Euronews that workers will be able to work four days a week for a period of six months. After that, they could choose whether to keep this arrangement or return to the five-day week without any negative consequences.
"The period of six months was chosen so that employees would not be stuck for too long in the event of a wrong decision," it said.
Under the Belgian system, employees can shorten the current five-day week to four days. In practice, this means maintaining a 38-hour week with one day off to compensate for longer working days.
Employees will also have the opportunity to request flexible working hours. The minimum notice period for shifts is also changing, as companies are now required to submit plans at least seven days in advance.
"This would benefit those who wish to spend more time with their children," Dermagne said in a statement, adding that the proposals would be particularly helpful for divorced or separated parents who share custody of their children.
leave me alone law
In January, civil servants working for the Belgian government were given the right to turn off their tools and ignore messages after hours without fear of trouble from their superiors.
Now all Belgian employees, including those in the private sector, should have the same rights, Dermagne said on Tuesday.
"The line between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred. These incessant demands can damage the worker's physical and mental health," he said.
In practice, the new law will apply to all employers with more than 20 employees. Employers are expected to negotiate with unions to include the right to switch off in collective agreements.
Gig workers in focus
The package of reforms also targets the gig economy: Workers of platforms such as Uber, Deliveroo and Just Eat Takeaway will be given insurance against work-related injuries and there will be clearer rules on who is and is not self-employed.
Belgium's new labor reforms complement a proposed European Union directive that would set out five criteria by which to assess whether or not a gigworker should be considered an employee.
In Belgium, platform workers who meet three out of eight possible criteria – including those whose work performance is monitored, who cannot turn down jobs, or whose pay is set by the company – are now considered workers entitled to sick leave and paid time off.
The regulations do not prevent anyone from working as a freelancer or contractor, said Social Affairs Minister Frank Vandenbroucke.
"If someone wants to work as a self-employed person, he or she can do so and will have more autonomy," he said.