Already in a 1993 judgment, the Constitutional Court (Grondwettelijk Hof / Cour Constitutionnelle) had considered the specific differences between white collar and blue collar employees to be unjustified. However, at that time the Court did not indicate that these differences had to be abolished within a specific time period.
By contrast, in a preliminary ruling of 7 July 2011 concerning a case that had been brought before the Labour Court of Brussels (Arbeidsrechtbank / Tribunal du travail), the Constitutional Court ordered the Belgian Parliament to abolish by 8 July 2013 the difference in treatment between white collar and blue collar employees (See, VBB on Belgian Business Law, Volume 2011, No. 7, p. 12, available at www.vbb.com).
In its ruling, the Constitutional Court considered two manifestations of the difference in treatment between these categories of employees to be unconstitutional, namely the notice period, which is longer for white collar employees, and the first unpaid day of sick leave in the blue collar employee's regime.
When a blue collar employee is not able to work due to illness, the first day of sick leave remains unpaid, unless the sick leave exceeds 14 days. In contrast, white collar employees are entitled to one month of guaranteed salary, paid at 100% by the employer, regardless of the length of their sick leave.
The Constitutional Court did not annul the legislative provisions accounting for the difference in treatment with immediate effect. Instead, it gave Parliament until 8 July 2013 to take measures to remove the current differences which it regarded as unconstitutional. The Constitutional Court sought to ensure that "the [federal] legislator would have sufficient time to complete the harmonisation of the regimes governing blue collar and white collar employees".
On 5 July 2013, the social partners reached an agreement with regard to the notice period and first unpaid day of sick leave under pressure from the government.
The agreement is as follows:
As from 1 January 2014, a worker will be entitled to two weeks’ notice during the first quarter of employment. During the second quarter the worker will be entitled to 4 weeks’ notice and during the third quarter the worker will be entitled to 6 weeks’ notice. As from the fourth quarter the worker will be entitled to one additional week’s notice per quarter up to 11 weeks during the eighth quarter. As from the second year of employment the worker will be entitled to 12 weeks’ notice, as from the third year of employment the worker will be entitled to 13 weeks’ notice and as from the fourth year of employment the worker will be entitled to 15 weeks of notice.
For every year of employment as from the fifth year of employment the worker will be entitled to an additional notice of three weeks, until he reaches the limit of 60 weeks after 19 years. As from the twentieth year of employment the worker will be entitled to 62 weeks of notice.
For every year of employment as from the twenty-first year of seniority, the worker will be entitled to an additional notice of one week.
However, workers will keep the rights they have built up under the old system. As from the start date of the new system (1 January 2014), the new system will be applied for all seniority which is built up from that date. This means that for these contracts, the notice period must be calculated based on both the old and the new system. The notice period for blue collar workers will gradually be brought to the level of the new system for the seniority which they have built up before the new system came into force.
The system regarding the first unpaid day of sick leave will be abolished, but there will be more inspections to counter abuses.
This new system will raise the cost for companies with blue collar workers. However, this additional cost will be paid partially by the employers and partially by the government.
In the agreement it is also stipulated that all workers will be entitled to outplacement as from seven years of seniority and that a collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated regarding the obligation to provide reasons for dismissals.
All other differences between blue and white collar workers (such as pay, holiday pay, sickness leave and guaranteed income, pension) do not form part of the agreement. Still, the social partners have undertaken to abolish the remaining differences by 1 January 2014.