Belgium's workforce is highly skilled, educated, and productive. Belgian workers are the most productive in the EU. The workforce is well paid and has both generous employer and government benefits. However, there are wide regional differences in wages, unemployment, and quality of life. Generally, conditions are better in Flanders and the German-speaking areas than in the French-speaking areas.
The nation's educational system is designed to prepare workers for entry into the workforce. From the age of 15 onward, children may work part-time while they attend school. In addition, industrial apprenticeship programs are available for students between the ages of 16 and 18. There is also vocational training available for both students and adults. The national government and regional governments offer a variety of incentives for retraining workers. These initiatives are designed to reduce the national social security burden.
There are laws against forced labor. The minimum age for a person to begin working is 15. Since education is mandatory until age 18, students may only work part-time during the school year. Youths may work full-time during school vacation periods. Both the national and regional governments aggressively enforce child labor laws.
In 1999, the government revised its legislation on equal opportunity in the workplace. The new laws outlawed sexual harassment, and continued the ban on gender discrimination in hiring, working conditions, wages, and termination. Equal treatment of men and women is guaranteed by the constitution. In 1999, legislation was passed requiring that women make up one-third of all candidates running for office. Economic inequities between men and women continue. For instance, the female unemployment rate was 10.9 percent in 1998, while the male unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. In addition, women only earn 84 percent of the salary that men earn in the same professions.
The constitution guarantees the right of workers to organize and to collective bargaining. Union membership is high and 63 percent of workers belong to unions. In addition, 90 percent of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. National laws limit wage increases to 5.9 percent per year. Special labor courts oversee disputes between workers and businesses. Although Belgian unions often have links to political parties, they are independent of the government. While there have been several significant strikes in the past decade, including those by teachers, railway workers and air traffic controllers, these disputes were settled peacefully.
National law sets a 40-hour workweek and mandates overtime pay for work beyond 40 hours per week and for more than 8 hours a day. In addition, each workweek must include a 24-hour rest period. However, many agreements between unions and companies have separate agreements that lower the workweek to either 35 or 38 hours per week. The minimum wage for workers over the age of 21 is $1,228 per month. Workers under the age of 21 are paid on a graduated scale. Workers who are 18 years old must be paid 82 percent of the minimum wage, 19 year olds must be paid 88 percent, and 20 year olds must be paid 94 percent. There are strong safety laws and many of these regulations are supplemented by collective bargaining agreements. Although companies with more than 50 employees must have health and safety committees made up of both management and workers, the Ministry of Labor oversees workplace laws.