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How non-EU nationals face big challenges working in Belgium
Contrary to what many people think, Brussels is more cosmopolitan than big, hustle-and-bustle cities like New York and London. In fact, it’s the second most international city in the world. Other than Dubai, no other city in Europe, Africa or the Americas has as many residents who were born abroad, according to the World Migration Report 2015.
But the city’s cosmopolitan makeup and its international appeal as the home of the European institutions bely the challenges that people born outside the EU face on the Belgian labour market. The most recent figures from the European Union’s statistics office Eurostat show that in Belgium just 54% of people born outside the EU are employed – the lowest figure out of all 28 member states. The figure for Belgian-born people is 72%.
A 28-year-old Turkish national who prefers to remain anonymous, says she feels like a second-class job applicant compared to EU nationals. When she moved to Brussels in 2017 for a traineeship at the European Commission, she thought it would be easy to subsequently find a job here. Instead, it’s mostly been an uphill battle.
“I’ve seen it so many times. Like: ‘You’re super qualified but there’s this Italian national who can start tomorrow so we’ll get them instead,’” she says, pointing out that she is highly educated and speaks both English and French fluently. “At a conceptual level, it’s so ridiculous and it frustrates me so much that I run into so much trouble. For me, it was not easy to find a job, no.”
She did, however, find a job and is currently still working in Brussels, but she says the insecurity and uncertainty of having her residence permit tied to her work situation has been unnerving. “My life here is great but this situation is a sword over my head,” she says. “My profile is here. I’m European; I want to stay here. And the source of frustration is that people don’t want me to stay here and they keep setting traps for me to lose,” she says, pointing out that she’s received conflicting information about work and residency permit requirements and keeps running into new, unexpected administrative hurdles as well as uncooperative government workers.
Experts are divided on the reasons for the low percentage of employed non-EU workers. Jan Gatz, spokesperson for the Brussels employment agency Actiris, says it is attributable to a combination of factors – linguistic, educational and administrative. “You often need more than one language to be able to work in Brussels – Dutch, French and often English,” he says, pointing out that with Brussels being a service economy, in which the provision of services is the main economic activity, good language skills are a must.
“Your chances of finding a job will be twice as high if you know Dutch, and non-EU citizens often have to first master French and then Dutch in addition – that’s a serious time investment that not everyone can or wants to make,” Gatz says.
A second major hurdle for highly skilled workers is the recognition of foreign diplomas. Figures from Actiris reveal that 36,000 Brussels residents have diplomas they obtained abroad but which haven’t been recognised. “That’s a large group; that’s 40% of all jobseekers in Belgium who, if their diplomas were recognised, might be able to start working,” says Gatz, pointing out that in the public sector, for instance, degrees tend to determine both salaries and what positions jobseekers can apply for.
The recognition of foreign diplomas is complicated by Belgium’s multilingual landscape. Because education is a competence of the communities, jobseekers in Brussels who want to have their diplomas recognised must turn to either the Service de la reconnaissance académique et professionnelle des diplômes étrangers or Naric Vlaanderen.
On the Dutch-speaking side, the procedure takes between two and four months and the application fee of €90 or €180 is waived if applicants meet certain criteria. On the francophone side, the cost is €200 with no waivers and waiting times of up to five months. “What’s the hurdle there? It’s not that simple for a jobseeker to put €250, or a figure of around that order, on the table,” Gatz says. “And although it’s free on the Dutch side, most of them don’t speak Dutch so they’re forced to turn to the francophone service.”
Asked for an explanation for the high number of unemployed people born outside the EU, the federal equal rights agency Unia paints a wholly different picture. The two principal reasons are likely discrimination and structural obstacles, says spokesperson Bram Sebrechts. The structural obstacles, for instance, manifest in the fact that applicants with a non-EU background often know fewer native-born people in influential or powerful job positions, that they more often work below their qualification level and have less access to recruitment channels.
The discrimination, on the other hand, reveals itself in employers and recruiters’ unequal treatment of two similar jobseekers who differ only in one aspect, Sebrechts says, citing migration background, age and disability as examples. This unequal treatment, he explains, follows from underlying stereotypes that lead to value judgements on the supposed qualities or competencies of candidates based on their personal characteristics. “This results in biased and non-objective choices being made and often in a choice for profiles that ‘resemble us’, profiles that we ‘know’ and ones that we view favourably,” he says.
A 2017 study by researchers at Ghent University demonstrated that hiring prejudices and biases exist even among government recruiters, with applicants with foreign-sounding names having 30% less chance of being invited to a job interview compared to applicants with a similar profile but with Flemish-sounding names.
But for the Turkish national we interviewed, the main reason is so much simpler – it’s not cultural discrimination and it’s not languages. “It’s literally papers – no one hires us,” she says, pointing out that employers don’t want to go through the trouble of applying for work permits and that confusion on the procedures abounds. Non-EU nationals must obtain work permits to be able to work in Belgium, which are subject to varying time limits depending on the type of permit issued.
Thomas Huddleston from the Migration Policy Group think tank says it’s all of the above. “The Belgian labour market is not the most dynamic and inclusive labour market in Europe,” he says, pointing to its low general employment rate, low GDP growth, high share of public-sector jobs and stringent employment protection legislation. “And then the immigrant population in Belgium mostly does not come for work or studies unlike in other European countries, so Belgium lets in few non-EU newcomers for work or study compared to other European countries,” he explains, pointing out that most people from outside the EU migrate to Belgium for family reunification reasons.
But, he says, it’s important to see the wood for the trees. “Discrimination is a strong factor but it’s also one that is enabled by a very rigid employment and education system that Belgians are often not aware of,” he says, pointing out that Belgium has one of the most highly socially segregated education systems in the world. The rigid labour market and education system “exacerbate discrimination and give employers and institutions many more reasons not to invest or care about the skills and qualifications of its population.”
This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn/winter 2019