Ever since the beginning of the pandemic in 2019, all parts of the developed world – Belgium included – sought innovative ways to keep employment and sustain jobs. This birthed the increase in the need to explore work from home.
Two years on, there has been an increase in the efficacy of remote work so much that many believe it will be an inevitable feature of the post-pandemic future. However, with the rise in remote work came the increase of concerns, especially from a legal and administrative perspective. Since then, legal experts have explored the impact of remote work in Belgium for both employers and employees.
The Belgian government has emphasized that remote work is a key feature needed to protect the citizens and sustain the economy.
In the latter parts of 2020, the Belgian government passed a decree, effective from November 2, 2020, introducing a number of temporary options, allowing companies to act flexibly.
If a company cannot sustain ‘teleworking’ and physical presence at the workplace is required, its employees are issued a certificate to validate their presence. Officials of Belgian social inspection services also visited businesses across the country to ensure enforcement of this decree.
In the hospitality sector, like hotels and restaurants, setups have needed to shut down totally, and as a result, financial support programs have been implemented for workers who are temporarily unemployed due to the pandemic.
Update of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)
Around January 26, 2021, a new national bargaining agreement was passed (CBA No. 149). It addresses teleworking during the pandemic period.
Apart from this, there was previous legislation that concerned remote working, one of such was the Act of March 5, 2017, which set the foundation stone for “feasible and flexible working” when it is occasional telework, and for structural telework, a CBA No. 85 is in place.
In addition to these, there is also a July 3, 1978, that governs homeworking.
These legislations establish the fundamental distinction between teleworking and homeworking. For teleworking, it is required that a direct communication link with the employer is established via modern information technology; this is not required for homeworking.
The CBA was very much needed because it provided a legal frame for businesses in areas of employee rights, work benefits, and employment negotiations. It also defined the new support system for workers in their teleworking roles.
Teleworking and its future Improvement
As described above, CBA 149 provides a legal structure for companies to allow employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future (till the end of the pandemic); however, as the benefit of teleworking becomes more vivid and with increased acceptance in many sectors, there is a clear drive and motivation to adopt this mode of working beyond the pandemic. Companies are willing to include a lasting structure that supports teleworking into their system.
The Belgian law allows for this, and there is even more than one choice to pick from;
First, companies could make an arrangement with employees to telework indefinitely. This arrangement is voluntary, reversible, and would be subject to conditions set down by Belgian law and sanctions in cases of violation of terms and agreement. This is a Structural Telework.
Second, an agreement that allows the employee to choose to telework under certain conditions, which could be personal or based on professional demands, could be made. The agreement would have to be unique to each case, and the duration and compensation concerning such an agreement would have to be determined each time.
Also, a homeworking agreement can be made, where the employee has the liberty to work remotely without the need for the essential and direct supervision as found with teleworking. Modalities and characteristics of each agreement must be emphasized and negotiated in the contract. This contract will also be subject to the laws and sanctions as stated by the Belgian laws.
How best to implement work from home?
The following are recommended steps to be taken by a company that wants to implement teleworking.
- Make sure the condition upon which the teleworking agreement is based applies to all employees.
- Ensure that employee bodies and workers’ representative councils associated with the company are consulted and duly informed before the contract is finalized.
- Endure that every employee is duly informed and fully understands the terms of the teleworking contract.
- Ensure that workers are informed about the policies and the supervision of their work.
- Ensure that every communication and agreement made is in line with the established Belgian laws.
Mobility of Staff
It is very important that the movement of workers as it concerns their job in and outside of the country is considered. Mobility within the country is somewhat restricted and regulated, and also, the movement of employees traveling into Belgium or away from it is subject to protocols that are dictated by the pandemic.
Professional and Business travel into Belgium is considered essential and thus is permitted; the Covid-19 protocol for anyone entering the country is dependent on their country of origin and the zone to which they are classified. Individuals that will travel out of Belgium must also be wary of regulations at their designated destination.
Health and Safety
It’s a pandemic out there, and the health and safety of employees are paramount to the smooth running of any company. So, what are the employer’s responsibilities as regards their employees?
We mentioned earlier that a 2020 decree required businesses to mandate their workers carry out their daily jobs from home unless it is absolutely necessary to be present physically at work. The basic COVID-19 protocols such as social distancing and mask compliance for these workers.
The Belgian government also issued a guide that educates the people on how to combat the spread of infection while at work. All these are aimed at reducing the employee’s risk of infection and reducing the spread of the virus.
Employees that are down with the Virus are also provided for under the guidelines provided by the Belgian government. Any worker who shows infection symptoms are referred to the health physician in charge of their company for further investigations.
Employee rights during the pandemic
This concerns the liberty of an employee in relation to their employers’ demands and what methods the employers can utilize to protect the company from disease and liability.
A policy should be enacted that involves the workers and their representatives through a recommended contact person that will respond to the concerns of the workers.
If the nature of a person’s work mandates their physical presence at work, as earlier stated, they have no right to refuse to show up at work. Failure to show up at work is an offense that can be sanctioned in line with the company’s policy and Belgian law. However, in situations that are deemed as a serious threat is suspected, the employee may be exempted on an emergency basis.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an evident increase in the importance and utilization of digital tools and gadgets in the daily operation of businesses around the country.
Contracts can be signed digitally using e-signature modalities as recognized by the Belgian labor act of 1978. According to this act, if any of the parties involved in the contract refuses the option of digital signature, then the regular hardcopy signing must take place for the contract. For full disclosure and understanding of the process involved in e-signatures, companies are advised to generate a comprehensive memo that informs their workers of available obligations and options.