The challenge of solidarity in the face of globalization
The most vulnerable people’s right to social security is being eroded, while poverty, precarious employment and underemployment are on the rise. The new Aliens Act does not guarantee respect for fundamental rights or rectify flaws in the previous regulatory system. A lack of solidarity is also reflected in the insufficient revenue allocated to development assistance.
Over the last decade Belgium has seen aprogressive erosion of the right to social security for the most vulnerable. Thenumber of women and men in a precarious situation (poverty; part-time,under-paid and forced employment; unemployment; deprived of rights to socialsecurity income) has been steadily increasing. Respect for the social rights ofaliens, for example those who lack documented legal status, is deteriorating dueto a progressive reduction in the legal protection provided by regulations andan intensification of repressive measures. This erosion is accompanied bystructural deficiencies for the allocation of resources to internationalcooperation and a lack of commitment to public initiatives in solidarity withthe most impoverished inhabitants of the planet. It is a basic obligation ofsolidarity to address the imperative need for an inclusive management of thedrive towards competitiveness that characterizes the globalized economy.
Increasing poverty, underemployment andprecarious work
Fifteen percent of the population lives below the poverty line, which is definedfor European countries as EUR 822 (USD 1,123) per month for a single person andEUR 1,726 for a family of two adults and two children. Without the support ofsocial security this rate would rise to 41.8%. Poverty rates vary by gender(16.2% of women are affected and 14.2% of men), by age (22.6% of over 65s) andby region (11.3% in Flanders, 17.7% in Wallonia and 27% in Brussels) (DGSIE,2007).
In 2005, 124,828 people out of a total population of just over 10 million werereceiving a social assistance income. This assistance amounted to EUR 429.66 forcohabitants, EUR 644.48 for single persons and EUR 859.31 for single parentfamilies with responsibility for children. These payments have increased by 10%since 1999. In 2002 this ‘social integration income’ (revenued’integration sociale, RIS), paid through Public Social Assistance Centres(CPAS), replaced the so-called ‘Minimex’ that was initiated in 1974. RIS canbe accompanied by an ‘individualized social integration project’ (projetindividualisé d’intégration sociale, PIIS) which involves active socialinsertion measures implemented by CPAS and aimed at the integration of peopleliving in situations of exclusion by means of employment. Failure to comply withthe integration contract can result in the suspension of benefits and of theright to a minimum income.
In addition, serious problems have been found to exist with access to housing.Belgium has one of the lowest proportions of social housing in Europe.
Although there has been a significant increase in the employment rate (20% in 20years), during the last decade precarious employment conditions have multiplied to the detriment of permanentemployment contracts.
In 1995, 15.4% of employment was part-time while by late 2006 this figure hadrisen to 23.8%. A quarter of these jobs were for a third or less of full-time,and 90% of part-time workers wanted to work more hours. Fixed-term contractsrepresented 3.8% of all contracts in 1996 and 6.2% in 2004 (DGSIE, 2007).
Women are more affected by precarious employment: 43.3% of women workers areemployed part-time, in comparison with 7.7% of men. Women fill over 80% ofpart-time jobs and less than a third of full-time jobs.
Temporary work is also increasing. In 2006 there were 493,000 temporary workers(130,000 of whom were students), a figure that represented a 3.5% increase inrelation to 2005 and a 73% increase in relation to 1996. Most of these workersare aged under 30. However, the number of temporary workers aged over 45(35,000) has increased significantly, by 10% in just one year. Temporary workconstituted 30% of all employment opportunities on offer at the RegionalCommunity Office for Professional Training and Employment in Wallonia and 60% atthe Employment and Professional Training Service in Flanders. Women occupied 42%of temporary jobs in 2006.
In May 2007, 7.2% of the economically active population was unemployed,including 7.9% of women and 16.9% of under 25s. Young people and foreignersexperience significant discrimination when seeking employment, particularly inBrussels.
Before being able to receive unemployment benefits, young people who havefinished their studies but have worked for less than one year in full-timeemployment must take up an internship of up to 310 working days during whichthey can expect to receive between EUR 237.90 and EUR 854.88 a month.
Inspired by theories of the so-called ‘active social state’ – which theBelgian Human Rights League (LDH) considers “more a social state exclusivelyfor the active population than a programme for a more socially active state”(LDH, 2005) – the federal government has implemented the Unemployed Activationand Follow-up Plan. Most associations involved with this sector and the tradeunions consider it to be an ‘unemployed hunt’ as it puts great pressure onpeople who are searching for work. According to the LDH (2005), the requirementto accept any kind of job “violates the principles of autonomy, freewill andfreedom in becoming party to a contract.” Moreover, this ‘activation’ planonly seems to have a significant impact on those unemployed with a higher levelof education who live in economically dynamic regions (IRES, 2007).
Immigrants: clandestine existence and social exclusion
On 15 September 2006 the Parliament establishedlegal provisions that modified the December 1980 law on “aliens’ access tothe territory, length of stay, settlement and departure” and created an AliensDisputes Board. These new provisions have profoundly changed Belgian law inrelation to aliens. However, the unanimous opinion of civil societyorganizations and trade unions is that these reforms cannot guarantee thefundamental rights of many foreigners who live in Belgium and that they do notrectify any aspects of the previous law’s defects.
The only response to the lack of protection experienced by several tens ofthousands of people living in the country has been the consolidation ofdiscretionary policies and impunity. Recent years have been characterized byintense mobilization in regard to the situation of people without documents.Since 2003 the news media has been continuously reporting numerous churchoccupations by undocumented people as well as demonstrations and awarenesscampaigns. The magnitude of this movement demonstrates the evident gap betweenthe regulatory framework and reality. Several tens of thousands of people whoseexistence is not officially acknowledged are living and working in Belgium, andmany of them have been doing so for several years.
The government regards the fight against clandestine immigration as animperative in the face of the ‘threat’ to social order represented byimmigrants living without official recognition. But the authorities fail tomention that these people’s presence changes the nature of the work force andconstitutes an adjustment variable that enables companies, and indeed the wholeof society, to make enormous savings based on the absence of employer socialsecurity contributions, miserably low salaries and their almost total lack ofsocial rights and access to public services.
The attitude of the authorities towards the immigration phenomenon leads to asituation that sooner or later has to be ‘regularized’, because repressionand denial cannot be a permanent solution.
The previous legal mechanism for regularization, in force between 1980 and 2006,was criticized and challenged due to its arbitrary nature in grantingdiscretional prerogatives to public authorities. However, the provisions of thenew law do not modify the situation and perpetuate an iniquitous system.
While waiting for the disparity between the legal framework and reality to beaddressed politically, civil society organizations and unions are working for aninterim regularization mechanism that would provide official acknowledgement andaccess to social rights for undocumented people. The ultimate objective would beto establish a legitimate structural mechanism for ‘regularization’. The lawmust provide clear enduring criteria for the granting of residence documents.
The erosion of aliens’ basic rights is also related to:
The right to family reunification: Thenew legal provisions incorporated into national law the European Union Council2003/86/CE directive of 22 September 2003 on the right to family reunificationfor people from third countries who have legal status. Citing elements of thisdirective (which only establishes minimum regulations) Belgian authorities tookthe opportunity to withdraw some guarantees that previously were acknowledged bylaw. The fact that procedures are now longer and more complex, together withtheir discriminatory and restrictive characteristics (for example, in regard toeconomic means and housing conditions requirements), and that extra-communityimmigrants no longer have recourse to the family reunification right for beingreunited with their parents, seriously infringes the fundamental right torespect for family and private life, ratified through numerous internationalrights instruments.
The right to health: According to theorganization Doctors Without Borders, in spite of a legal provision introduced10 years ago that established access to health services for aliens without legalstatus, “in practice many of them are still excluded due to systemmalfunction, administrative obstacles, arbitrariness or their own mistrust ofinstitutions.” Although the legal framework establishes that ‘urgent medicalassistance’ can include both preventive and curative attention, the term‘urgent’ generates confusion and “allows for an arbitrary interpretationby doctors and public social assistance centres” (MSFB, 2006). This allowsthem to deny service provision on the pretext that the need is not ‘urgent’,as in the case of prenatal care.
Belgium has not yet ratified the International Convention on the Protection ofthe Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (UN GeneralAssembly resolution 45/158) or International Labour Organization (ILO)Convention 143 on Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equalityof Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers.
In 2006 Belgium was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for its rolein the Tabitha case, involving the detention of an unaccompanied girl, which thecourt determined constituted inhuman treatment. The detention of immigrantfamilies and individuals prior to deportation (more than 15,000 people a year)can in reality be prolonged indefinitely if the deportation order is resisted.This state of affairs demonstrates that detention centres for aliens constitutea zone of permanent arbitrariness where the law does not apply, a situationtotally unworthy of a democratic state.
Decreased development assistance,inflated figures
In 2006 official development assistance (ODA) fell by 2.7% in relation to 2005and represented 0.5% of gross national income (GNI), although accountingmaneuvers continued to play a significant role in the calculation of thesefigures. Both debt relief (over EUR 325 million, about which we can be pleased)and expenditure on the reception of asylum seekers (some EUR 58 million) havebeen included. If we subtract these two amounts, net ODA is only equivalent to0.37% of GNI. That is to say, we are very far from the growth trajectory set outby the government to ensure compliance with the 24 December 2002 law requiringthe allocation of 0.7% of GNI to ODA as of 2010. The gap between the legalobligation and resources actually allocated is therefore much bigger than theofficial figures suggest.
There are four elements that make the situation worse:
• During the coming years it will not be possible to systematically resort todebt reductions as a means of inflating the cooperation budget. From 2008 theamounts of bilateral debt that can be subject to reduction within the frameworkof the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative will diminish significantly.The new government will then have to urgently find substitutes for thesystematic use of debt reduction.
• The structural deficiency in planning for assistance resources is evident.The Council of Ministers has given notice that as a result of last November’sbudget conclave, an annual growth of 5% is forecast for the General Departmentof Cooperation for Development (DGCD) budget. According to governmentcalculations the cooperation budget allocated to DGCD will constitute 60% of ODAover the next few years, which means that at best some 0.5% of GNI will beallocated for assistance in 2010, an identical percentage to that in 2006.
• Belgium’s development assistance leaves a lot to be desired from aqualitative point of view. It is regrettable that in the last evaluation reportof the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Paris Declaration,Belgium is consistently positioned amongst the worst countries for fundprovision management, for example in advanced planning for assistance.
• A similar state of affairs exists in regard to responsibility andaccountability. The law governing cooperation requires the executive to producesector and regional strategic documents that are made available for input fromcivil society and are then presented to Parliament for approval. These documentsshould include a strategy implementation schedule and an estimate of the humanand financial resources needed for the realization of proposed objectives. Theyhave to be updated every four years. However, it is clear that the governmenthas not fulfilled its legal obligations in this matter and that it is intendingto eliminate them or review their terms. Thus Parliament (which in any eventdoes not have an obligation to deal with these matters) and civil society aredeprived of an important tool for monitoring and participating in the generationof strategies for international cooperation.
Direction GénéraleStatistique et Information Économique (2007) Brussels: ServicePublic Fédéral Économie, Petites et Moyennes Entreprises, Classes Moyennes etÉnergie de la Belgique. <statbel.fgov.be/>.
IRES (Institut de recherche économique) (2007). “Perspectives économiques2007-2008” [online]. RegardsÉconomiques. Catholic University of Leuven. No. 53, July. Available at:<www.uclouvain.be/regards-economiques.html>.
LDH (Ligue des Droits de l’Homme de Belgique) (2005). ÉtatSocial Actif : État socialement plus actif ou État social réservé aux seulsactifs? [online]. Brussels: Ligue des Droits de l’Homme de Belgique.<www.liguedh.be/>.
MSFB (Médecins Sans Frontières Belgique) (2006). Belgique: Sans-papiers etsans soins médicaux? Brussels: MédecinsSans Frontières. Available at: <www.msf.be/fr/terrain/pays/europe/belgique_news_12.shtml>.