The National Bank of Belgium (NBB) reports significant growth in employment in 2016 which it attributes to measures taken by the centre-right government. This view is not shared by the trade unions, whose two representatives on the Council of Regency, one of the bank’s governing bodies, have refused to sign the report, published on 10 February.
According to the NBB’s annual report, 59 000 jobs were created in Belgium in 2016 (45 000 salaried and 14 000 self-employed), an additional 17 000 jobs compared to 2015. The NBB attributes these healthy figures to the measures taken by the Belgian Federal Government, headed by the French-speaking liberal Charles Michel. ‘Over recent years, we have worked to reform the job market, cut labour charges, improve competitiveness and keep public expenditure in check. These efforts are now beginning to bear fruit, particularly in terms of job creation,’ the report stresses.
At the end of 2016, Belgium had 553 000 jobseekers, while the unemployment rate stood at 8%, though there are significant disparities between the country’s three regions: the rate in Flanders is less than half that in Wallonia and over three times lower than in the Brussels-Capital region.
The NBB states that the decline in unemployment is ‘clear in all age groups’. It stresses the reduction in long-term unemployment in particular, attributing this to the previous government’s decision to set a time limit on unemployment benefits, a measure that has been in force since 1 January 2012.
Despite faster job creation, the NBB points out that the improvement in the employment rate remains modest. The rate has risen by less than 2% (from 65.8% in 2015 to 67.4% in 2016) ‘due to a parallel increase in the working age population’. The NBB also notes that access to employment continues to be problematic for non-European immigrants, whose rate of employment is a mere 45%. ‘What is more, the insertion of second-generation immigrants into the labour market is not improving,’ regrets the NBB.
While the Belgian Prime Minister welcomes the report as an encouragement to his government’s reforms, the country’s two leading trade union confederations have distanced themselves from the findings of the NBB, a forum in which they are represented. The Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC) and its socialist alter ego, the FGTB, have refused to sign the bank’s annual report. ‘I cannot approve the NBB report because it does not take the needs of our workers or our economy sufficiently into account,’ says Rudy De Leeuw, President of the FGTB. ‘The report […] states that the reforms are beginning to bear fruit, while the development of employment is clearly below the euro-zone average,’ replies Marc Leemans, President of the CSC.
Trade union leaders are not alone in challenging the link drawn by the NBB between the Belgian executive’s measures and growth in employment. ‘The fact that the Belgian economy might be performing better now has little to do with government policy. It is due mainly to a more favourable economic climate in the euro zone,’ writes the economist Paul De Grauwe (London School of Economics) in an article published in the Flemish daily De Morgen.
Other economists also question the effectiveness of government employment measures. A joint report by Ghent University and the Catholic University of Louvain, the main lessons from which were reported on 20 February in Le Soir, states that the measures taken over the past 10 years to increase the employment rate of 55- to 64-year-olds have had little effect. Compared to its neighbours, Belgium has a particularly low rate of employment for older workers: 48.9% for men and only 39.3% for women.
Jill Rubery (Manchester Business School) and Agnieszka Piasna (ETUI)