Unemployment benefits are paid only when you become unemployed involuntarily, e.g. if you’re made redundant, and not when you quit your job voluntarily. If you’re sacked, you may still be eligible for unemployment benefit after a certain period. To qualify for benefit, you must be fit and available for work (which usually means you must enrol with the national employment office), and register with your local benefits office on a regular basis.
If you’re an EU citizen and move from Belgium to another EU country to seek employment, you may be entitled to up to three months’ unemployment benefit from the country you’ve left. To qualify, you must notify the benefits office of your move and register with the unemployment office in your new country within seven days of your arrival. Further information is available on the EU website (www.europa.eu).
Unemployment benefits in Belgium are subject to complicated requirements and restrictions (no surprise!), depending on your age, work experience and family situation. You must have worked for a total of at least 312 days in the 18 months prior to losing your job if you’re under the age of 36, 468 days in the last 27 months if you’re 36 to 50, and 624 days in the last 36 months if you’re aged over 50. There are special benefits for those over the age of 50 who take part in early retirement schemes, and all unemployment benefits cease when you reach the legal retirement age of 65.
To apply for benefits, you can go to one of the many trade union-run unemployment agencies (even if you aren’t a union member) or to the state-run Auxiliary Fund for Payment of Unemployment Benefits (NL: Hulpkas voor Werkloosheidsuitkeringen FR: Caisse auxiliaire de Paiement des Allocations de Chômage), and you’re free to change agencies at any time. Benefits normally start immediately unless you’re receiving a redundancy payment or compensation from your previous employer. If you were sacked, you must wait 4 to 26 weeks before receiving unemployment benefit, and young people who have just left school must also wait several months, although they’re still eligible for child benefit during the waiting period.
You must register with the state employment service (VDAB in Flemish-speaking areas, FOREM in Walloon or ACTIRIS in the Brussels region) and go to the unemployment agency twice a month to ‘discuss’ your job hunting progress (i.e. to show that you’re making an effort to find work). While receiving unemployment benefit, you aren’t permitted to work, and this means any activity that might bring a material advantage to you or your family, including home improvements! If you have a secondary profession, you may resort to this only if you were practising it at some time during the three months prior to losing your principal job and had declared it for tax purposes. Even then, you aren’t allowed to engage in this profession between 7am and 6pm, as this is when you’re supposed to be looking for a job in your main line of work!
The amount of unemployment benefit you receive depends on your family status. If you’re single or have a family which is dependent on your earnings, you’re entitled to 60 per cent of your previous salary. If your spouse or partner has income, you may claim only 55 per cent. After one year, single claimants are reduced to 42 per cent of previous earnings, whereas those with dependants and no other wage earner in the family continue to receive 60 per cent benefit, in both cases for as long as they’re unemployed (provided you continue to meet other criteria). If your spouse or partner is earning, your benefit is reduced to 35 per cent of your previous salary after one year, and this reduced amount is paid for three months only, plus an additional three months for each year you had been in work before you became unemployed. After that period, your benefit is further reduced to around €13 per day (to encourage you to get a job!).