Belgians express a level of satisfaction with their family life that is well above the European average, with 92% saying that they are ‘very or quite satisfied’. This may be linked to a number of family and equality-friendly policies of which pre-school education is the most prominent. Pre-school education is free from the age of three and 99% of children are enrolled in formal childcare or pre-school. Although material child poverty is on the rise, UNICEF found Belgium to perform best of the industrialised nations in terms of its education-related child well-being indicators.
In 2010 the gender pay gap was comparatively small in Belgium at 8.6%, which was well below the EU average of 16.4%. However, in 2011, 43.4% of women worked part-time, more than the EU average of 32.1% and the overall employment rate for women was 56.7% as against the European average of 58.5%. The same year, the employment rate of mothers of children under six was 67.4%, which was well above the EU average of 58.9%. At 86.7%, the employment rate of fathers was also higher than the EU average (86.5%).
63% of Belgians are ‘very satisfied’ with their family life, significantly above the EU average of 52%, according to the 2008 Eurobarometer survey on family life . Yet 47% of respondents said they found it very or fairly difficult to combine work and family life. Furthermore, over 80% called for more flexible childcare arrangements and greater tax advantages for families with children.
Women have the right to paid maternity leave of 15 calendar weeks, which is quite low if compared to other European countries. Eight weeks of the maternity leave need to be taken after childbirth and at least one week has to be taken before the baby’s due date.
A maternity leave benefit is paid at 82% of salary for the first 30 days of leave, dropping to 75% for the remainder. Fathers are entitled to a paternity leave of 10 working days. Seven of these days are paid by social security at 82% of the father’s salary, subject to a ceiling.
Parental leave can be taken in one of the following ways: four months full-time leave from work, 8 months working half time or 20 months of work at 80% of normal working hours. These different modalities, available to both parents can also be combined in a flexible manner. For instance, one month off work could then be followed by six months working half time. Following parental leave, almost half of women (49%) go back to work at the same number of hours per week as before taking parental leave. Only 2% do not go back to work at all (well below the EU average of 10%).
In 2010, 36% of children under three and 99% of children between three and compulsory school age were enrolled in formal childcare. These figures are above the EU Barcelona targets for childcare provision and the EU averages of 28% and 84% respectively.
In 2009 government spending on social benefits for families accounted for 2.2% of GDP, nearly the same as the EU average of 2.3%. For the first-born child a one-off ‘birth grant’ of €1,199.10 is paid, with €902.18 paid for each following child. ‘Ordinary family benefit’ is paid monthly, based on a scale that relates both to the number and age of children and the parents’ employment status. Further social supplements, including for disabled children and single-parent families, also exist.
Building on a career-breaks scheme first launched in 1985, in 2002, the Belgian government introduced a new ‘Time Credit’ scheme to facilitate work-life balance for private sector employees. They receive compensation for their reduced income based on their age and the number of years that they have spent working for their current employer. For employees in the various levels of the public sector, the career break system is continued.
The system permits employees in the private sector to:
- take up to one year’s leave from work, or significantly reduce their working hours, without breaking their employment contract or endangering social security rights;
- reduce working hours, usually from a 5-day to a 4-day week, for up to 5 years;
- further reduce working hours, for employees aged 51 years or more, down to working half-time for an unlimited period.
The employees who use the scheme receive a flat-rate benefit ranging from €101 per month for those who decide to work a 4-day week to €565 per month for those who take a career break after working for a company for 5 years.
The information in the country profile was last updated in November 2012.
UNICEF Belgium recently warned about rising child poverty in Belgium. Nearly 17% of children in Belgium are living below the poverty line, and they come mostly from single-parent families and from families in which the parents are not working. Rising infant mortality, declining literacy rates, and difficult access to the housing market are other alarming signs, UNICEF argued.
To address the situation, in June 2010 the Belgian Secretary of State for Social Integration and the Fight against Poverty, Philippe Courard, set aside €4.2 million to help the ‘Centres publics d’Action sociale’ (CPAS; Public social action centres) fight child poverty.
The CPAS can select target groups and allocate a specific budget to collective and individual initiatives to promote the social participation of children in their geographic area. This may involve support for parents in fields such as health, hygiene and nutrition, funding child development activities and financial aid for learning (homework help programmes, school fees, participation in cultural and sports activities, etc.).
In 2007 the parenting support programme in the Flanders region was formally adopted as government policy by a government decree. The decree describes parenting support as ‘easily accessible, basic parenting support to parents and persons with childcare responsibilities. This new development means that parenting support is now offered to anyone who cares for children and young people. Most services under the programme are available to all who are covered by the scheme but some are specifically targeted at vulnerable families. The decree sets out the policy framework for parenting support in Flanders and specifies multiple levels of parenting support, such as local- and regional-level support, the provision of services through parenting ‘shops’, the organisation of Flemish parenting support coordinators, provincial parenting support centres and the centre for obtaining expert advice in parenting matters, EXPOO.