More challenges at work for people of foreign origin in Belgium, still in 2022

11 October 2022

The 5th Socio-economic Monitoring, organised by Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue and Unia, shows that the position of people of foreign origin on the labour market has improved in recent years. However, their employment rate remains much lower than that of people of Belgian origin, especially when compared to neighbouring countries. The COVID-19 pandemic also confirmed their precarious status. This is unacceptable in the heart of Europe, in a country with such a strong tradition of social dialogue and sound anti-discrimination legislation. The solution will require a comprehensive and concerted approach.

The Belgian labour market was positive between 2017 and 2019, with the employment rate rising from 64.7% in 2016 to 67.1% in 2019. It increased for all origins, even if this can sometimes hide disparities.

Regrettably, this new report also points to an ethnostratification of the labour market and structural discrimination which reduces the chances of people of foreign origin be able to find a job.

  • Even with the same level of diploma or field of study, people of foreign origin find it more difficult to find a job. Although the gap in employment rates compared to people of Belgian origin has narrowed for each level of diploma since 2016, it's striking to note that this gap remains significant when it comes to people with higher education diplomas, which people of foreign origin find harder to have recognised in our labour market. Furthermore, the wage gap is larger: 21.9% of higher education graduates of foreign origin are in lower wage categories, compared to 8.2% for people of Belgian origin.
  • The quality of work (wages, mobility between statuses, sectors and types of contracts) has improved, but people with an immigrant background are still over-represented in less qualitative and less sustainable jobs, regularly finding themselves unemployed or often working as temporary workers or labourers. What's more, it's even more difficult for them to find a job when they have, at most, a certificate of lower secondary education, are older than 55, are women/mothers or have only recently arrived in Belgium.

The insecurity of work confirmed by COVID-19

Analysis of the labour market in 2020 shows that fewer people of foreign origin were able to telework - and, therefore, were more exposed to the risks of infection - and more were employed in sectors that had to shut down. This meant that they were more likely to lose their jobs and experience greater difficulty returning to work. The situation was even more complicated for those with lower secondary school certificates and for low-income workers.

New themes for specific challenges

This year’s Monitoring also focuses on academic delay, which is a barrier to higher education access and negatively impacts employment rates later. The report shows the gap between people of Belgian origin, more than 72% of whom obtained their higher secondary education diploma without delay, and people of foreign origin, who's rate is 40% lower.

The Monitoring also looked at the growing phenomenon of secondment: in 2020, 21% of seconded workers were of non-European origin, compared to only 8% in 2010. They are generally posted by an employer established in one of the EU-15 Member States, with the Netherlands well ahead (26%), followed by Portugal (7%), France (5%) and Germany (4%). It fundamentally changes the balance and particularly the profile of labour migration to countries like Belgium.

A global approach for change

The road to an inclusive and non-discriminatory labour market remains long. The report shows that this multifaceted phenomenon requires a comprehensive and concerted approach by the various authorities, in collaboration with social partners. The solution lies in improving labour market mobility; paying increased attention to the segmentation and quality of work; a stronger education system that provides opportunities for all; and an appropriate migration and integration policy.

“Companies must also do their bit and strive for more equality in the labour market by developing appropriate anti-discrimination policies for each stage of their employment relationships and by monitoring the diversity of their workforce," underlines Patrick Charlier, Director of Unia. “Employers can call on the support of Unia and other organisations like the services for prevention and protection at work, whether for a risk analysis or to define concrete preventative measures to implement to avoid discrimination.”

This report will be available in English in 2023. You can read in now in French or Dutch.

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