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Finding Employment

Belgium - Finding Employment


Unemployment in Belgium is relatively high in comparison with other nearby European countries, although the November 2016 unemployment rate of 7.6% is nowhere near the all-time high rate of 11% in 1983. The lowest rate unemployment has ever been was 6% in January 2001, the same rate currently experienced by Luxembourg and Sweden.

Youth unemployment in Belgium continues to be of concern. The lowest it has ever been was 14% in July 1991, but since 1983 it has averaged 20.21%. In January 2016 youth unemployment in the country reached an unprecedented 26%.

However, Belgium also suffers from a shortage of experienced workers in a number of key areas, including engineering, architecture, accounting, nursing, computer system designers and analysts, as well as professionals needed by European Union institutions and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Many employers will be happy to employ someone who speaks English fluently, especially companies which are frequently involved with international communication. Foreign language lessons form an important part of schooling across Belgium, but in most companies a French or Dutch speaker is preferred. The employment website Reed clearly identifies the languages required by their client companies in each job advert, but more generally the advert itself will appear in the language applicants are required to speak.

Applications can often be made from the UK, using a covering letter and 2 page CV, or by completing an online application form. An interview will normally be required before you are offered employment. UK qualifications are recognised across the European Union.

Some of the websites you can use to start your employment search are:

Academic Jobs EU: for academic and research jobs in Europe
EURES - European Job Mobility Portal: includes a searchable database of a large variety of jobs in EU countries, including Belgium
EuroBrussels: for jobs in EU Institutions
Eurograduate - The European Graduate Career Guide: an online service for European graduates which lists career opportunities
Jobat: available in Dutch, French and English, you can receive jobs by email and search jobs by sector or region.

Further opportunities to work in Belgium are provided through competitive internships with large organisations. The European Commission scheme runs twice a year for five months, and includes a generous monthly living allowance. Trainee exchange programmes lasting between six weeks and 18 months are offered by youth organisation IAESTE UK).

Work as an English language assistant in a school or higher education institute can be sought through the British Council, should you be a native English speaker who has completed secondary education in the UK, hold a French A Level, and passed two years of university education as a minimum.

If you are in Belgium and looking for temporary work, most areas, especially those in or close to cities, will have local recruitment agencies.

For details of volunteering opportunities, try Concordia International Volunteers or the International Voluntary Services, although you will usually be required to pay a placement fee and will have to have an independent source of income to sustain yourself whilst away.

Within the workplace, it is good to be aware of the reserved, self-reliant and self-effacing nature of colleagues and clients. People can be reluctant to commit straight away to ideas or projects, and the hierarchical submission to management, though growing less strong each decade, still lingers; even work colleagues should be addressed formally as ‘vous’ when speaking French. It means ideas and opinions may not be forthcoming or as strongly honest as the situation requires, whilst resistance will be quietly implemented later. On the flip side, Belgians are known for being hard workers who strive to achieve results during the working day.

When being introduced to someone for the first time in a business meeting, shake hands and say ‘it’s nice to meet you’ in the language for the area. In a business meeting, the arrival would normally go around the room shaking each participant’s hand. Eye contact should be steady but not challenging or unnerving. Titles are rarely used, but first names should only be used upon invitation.

In a social meeting, women and people of opposite sexes may kiss on the cheek three times, starting with the right cheek. Men will normally only kiss if they are old friends, or living in Wallonia.

In the early days of your acquaintance with someone, do not be overly familiar. Even as the acquaintance develops, do not offer backslaps or hugs and always respect personal space. Talking with your hands in your pockets, chewing gum or pointing your finger at them are all very rude. Personal and intimate questions should be avoided, such as what they earn or what their house is worth. Issues such as politics, religion, racial issues, and the community conflict between Flemish and Walloon areas can cause great offence so try to avoid these unless someone else brings them up and you know (and can find common ground with) the views of everyone present.

At a generalised level, Belgians are seen as very family orientated, often living not too far from their extended family even with significant commuting times to work. The work-life balance is very important, so by law employees can only work 8 hours a day and 48 hours a week maximum; whilst collective agreement would allow long hours, a business culture of unpaid overtime would not be acceptable in the country. The average summer break entitlement is four weeks, so during July and August many workplaces will be very quiet. The shops have limited hours compared to some other European countries, are closed on Sundays and Catholic holidays as well as public holidays of national significance; people appear to be happy with this situation, especially as many shops are run as small family enterprises. The Belgians are not known for being status driven workaholics; ownership of a home and a car are the two main aspirations. Foreign holidays to the mediterranean and further afield are becoming popular, though many families continue to enjoy the Belgian North Sea coast or nearby France as their destination of choice.

Belgium has been the home of large groups of immigrants for centuries. The status of Brussels as the unofficial head of the European Union has continued the trend, bringing in new immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. Belgium is currently home to 750,000 expats from around the globe, in addition to the millions who have been born in Belgium as descendants of immigrants. Although recent violent events coordinated and implemented by terrorist cells living in Belgium have made the general population concerned about who enters the country, no changes have been made to immigration policies to date. The Belgian acceptance of people different to the norm is reflected in employment law; recruitment, employment and training have equal opportunities enshrined in law, and allow equal access regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.

Differences in attitudes between the Flemish and Walloon peoples should be respected. Flemish employees are generalised as being more task oriented and Walloons more people oriented when doing business, for example. The political differences are significant between the regions, leading to great difficulties appointing and maintaining governments, and are a minefield to be avoided in the workplace.

Most Belgians still attend a formal place of work, as home working is still the exception rather than the norm. Some companies have now introduced flexi time systems which help their workers travel before or after the rush hour times and therefore cut down the amount of time spent commuting.

In addition to the rules on working hours and equality in the workplace, there is a national minimum wage in place - one of the highest in Europe - which requires all employers to pay at or above a set hourly limit. Health and safety legislation keeps employees and customers safe in the workplace. Any business employing more than 50 staff must provide worker representation, whilst any business employing more than 100 staff must provide a works council; these try to ensure workers are consulted with and agree to any decisions which will affect their working conditions.

Tax rates are amongst the highest in Europe, between 25% and 50% depending on the level of pre-tax earnings; as you earn more you will be taxed more heavily. Most purchases have Value Added Tax (VAT) of 21% applied, although this is included on the price of items you see displayed in shops and on menus.

Unemployment insurance is mandatory for all employees, with further contributions paid by employers. Unemployment benefits will only be paid to those fit for work who are actively looking for a job, who regularly register with the local benefits office as required, and who meet the following conditions:

• The job is terminated by the employer
• If under the age of 36, at least 312 days must have been worked in the previous 18 months
• Between 36 and 50 years of age, 468 days must have been worked in the previous 27 months
• If over the age of 50, 624 days must have been worked in the last 36 months
• If the employee has been dismissed through any fault of their own they may be subject to a waiting period before benefit eligibility (4 to 26 weeks)
• If a redundancy or other payment was made by the previous employer there is usually a waiting period imposed
• A young person who has just left school must rely on child benefit rather than unemployment benefit
• Those who take part in early retirement schemes over the age of 50 may receive alternative benefits
• Unemployment benefits are not available to anyone who has reached their 65th birthday.

Application for unemployment benefits may be made to the state run offices or to a trade union run unemployment agency. Meanwhile an application must be made to the state employment office, who will arrange frequent appointments to monitor job hunting activities.

According to the European Federation for Services to Individuals (EFSI), each unemployed individual in Belgium costs their government significantly more than their counterparts in other nearby European countries. For example, the costs to the Belgian government in respect of an unemployed person is average €33,443 per year, whereas in Britain is it €18,008 per year. The benefits system in Belgium is complicated but generous. For the first 12 months, single people or those with a dependent family are entitled to 60% of their previous salary, reducing to 42% for single people and 60% for those with dependent families for the remainder of the unemployment period. Those who have a working partner are entitled to 55% of their previous salary for the first 12 months and 35% for the following three months, thereafter continuing for three months for every previous year of work, until reaching a final point whereby entitlement is around €13 per day.


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