8 May 2020

[updated version of an article initially published on 6 May 2020]

The impact of COVID-19 on the workforce is massive and presents a major challenge in terms of social law. Companies can gradually begin to rebuild their economic activities under special conditions.

As from 4 May 2020, the Belgian coronavirus exit strategy has taken effect. Except for some specific sectors and activities, companies can gradually begin to rebuild their economic activities under special conditions set by the National Safety Council and laid down in the Ministerial Decree of 30 April 2020.

Teleworking and social distancing

Employers are obliged, to the best of their ability, to maintain teleworking for all workers whose function allows this. Since no end date is foreseeable, implementing or enhancing structural teleworking in accordance with Collective Labour Agreement no. 85 is recommended.

In addition, employers must take the necessary measures to guarantee maximum respecting of the social distancing rules at the workplace (also for transport organised by the employer). Employers should take appropriate prevention measures in a timely manner. These should consist of safety and health regulations of a material, technical and/or organisational nature as determined in the "generic guide" from the Federal Public Service for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue to avoid the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace, supplemented by directives at business sector level ("sectorgids of protocol"/"guide sectoriel ou protocole") (see link).

Employers should inform and consult the competent social representative bodies and/or personnel and consult the internal and/or external services for prevention and protection at work. Employees need to be informed and trained in good time.

Specific employment measures for employers in the "critical" and "vital" sectors

Special Powers Decree no. 14 of 27 April 2020 introduces a range of employment measures in the "critical" and "vital" sectors.

Critical sectors 

The first set of measures is applicable to the "critical sectors and essential services" defined extensively in the annex to the Ministerial Decree of 3 April 2020 (see link). The application of these measures for the private sector is set out in a list enumerating the relevant Joint Committees. All measures are applicable from 1 April 2020 until 30 June 2020.

Voluntary overtime hours

Permitted loaning of personnel

Consecutive employment agreements of definite duration

Vital sectors

The second set of measures is applicable to the "vital" sectors, i.e. the sectors within the field of JC 144 on agriculture, JC 145 on horticulture, JC 146 on forestry, and also JC 322 on temporary agency work to the extent that the temporary agency worker is employed in one of these three sectors.

Other specific employment measures

More student work allowed

Employment of asylum seekers and other foreigners seeking international protection

Temporary unemployment: status update

According to a recent update on the website of the National Employment Office, the enhanced and simplified regime of temporary unemployment for reasons of force majeure is applicable until 30 June 2020. It remains uncertain how long this regime will be extended.

As soon as the exceptional regime ceases to be extended, the ordinary distinct (temporary) unemployment schemes for blue-collar and white-collar workers will become applicable again. For white-collar workers employed in business sectors without an unemployment regime, a simplified regime of economic unemployment has temporarily been put in place by Collective Labour Agreement no. 147 entered into in the National Labour Council. This regime is currently applicable until 30 June 2020 but is not being applied in practice, since the force majeure regime is still in force until that date as well. If extended, the regime of CLA no. 147 does still require preliminary recognition as a company in restructuring by the Federal Minister of Employment.

Employers will have to anticipate in their workforce planning for the coming months and, if required, put in place the applicable unemployment regimes.

Conclusion

The impact of COVID-19 on the workforce is massive and presents a major challenge in terms of social law. Statutory measures are being published with a backlog, and administrative interpretations are becoming the new normal. The primary focus of the measures is to take care of public health, prevention and protection at work. Enhancing human resources in the critical and vital sectors is the secondary focus. The next area which will urgently require attention is how companies can gradually rebuild their activities while avoiding massive redundancies. During the 2008 crisis, the focus was on reflation measures, such as collective working time reductions, which do not (yet) seem to be on the government's agenda this time.

For measures regarding the federal public sector during the coronavirus crisis, please see our article on that subject here.