A reform of statutory working time being proposed by the Belgian government is, rather surprisingly, not winning approval from the company’s labor unions.

The government says an increase flexible working will allow workers to achieve a better balance between family and working life. Trade unions, however, fear that this flexibility will work only to the advantage of employers.

Proposed by the Belgian labour minister Kris Peeters, the reform would change the way working hours are calculated from weekly to yearly. The legal maximum working week would increase from 38 to 45 hours, but only on the condition that when calculated on an annual basis, the average week remains at 38 hours. In practice, an employee could, for example, work a 45 hour week with 9 hour working days, and compensate with shorter days during the year.

The company’s trade unions are skeptical about the government’s claims that this system will allow employers to manage the their company’s production more efficiently, while also giving employees a better equilibrium between working and private life.

The three Belgian union confederations charge that increased flexibility only benefits employers, who could require employees to work more during the peak production periods and then reduce working hours when the demand is weaker.

Trade unions also object to the fact that this reform program was developed by the government -- outside of the traditional mechanisms of social dialogue.

For more information on the impact of long work hours on workers' health: HesaMag 05 - special report Paying the price for putting in the hours - 2012 (pdf - 2.17 Mb)