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Belgium: Socioeconomic Monitor 2017 - origin determines work opportunities

December 19th 2017

In Belgium, your origin still largely determines your success in the labour market. That recurring observation is unacceptable for Unia. The third Socioeconomic Monitor has just been published. This report is the result of a two-year cooperation between the Federal Public Service and Unia. The report includes an inventory of the population aged between 18 and 64 and combines data on their origins and migration background with information about their position on the labour market in the period 2008-2014.

The findings leave no doubt: there is no sign of equal opportunities, certainly not in terms of quality of work. Origin remains a determining factor in explaining the inequalities in the labour market. The gap between people of Belgian and foreign origin is obvious, especially when you look at age and gender.

The Socioeconomic Monitor 2017 once again confirms that people of foreign origin are lagging far behind on the Belgian labour market. In 2014, the employment rate of people of Belgian origin was 73%, compared with 42.5% for people from sub-Saharan Africa, 42.2% for people from a European country outside the EU, 44.3% for people from Maghreb countries and 46,0% for people from EU candidate countries (mainly from Turkey).

Even in the case of having the same diploma, origin largely determines the success on the labour market

It is no surprise that the employment rate increases as the level of education increases. This applies to everyone, but especially to people of Belgian origin. This favorable development is, however, much less pronounced in people of foreign origin. Although the very difficult integration of the low-skilled into the labour market remains the biggest problem in Belgium, the report still shows that a high level of education does not remove all inequalities between employees of Belgian and foreign origin. For people with a high level of education, but of non-EU origin, the employment rate is 10 percentage points lower than for employees of EU origin. Unia Co-Director Els Keytsman emphasizes that "Even with the same diploma, people of Belgian origin usually do a much better job on the labour market than others. This indicates that our economy is not able to make the most of everyone’s skills."

Level of education and wage

The wage level usually evolves in parallel with the level of education: the higher the level of education, the higher the wage.

The progress made in the field of education, however, is not reflected in the pay levels. How is it that more than 12.3% of workers of Belgian-origin with a low level of education have a high wage, whereas this is only the case with 4.2% of workers from a Maghreb country or 1.2% of workers of Asian countries with a similar level of education? Approximately 60 to 80% of the employees belonging to these latter groups fall into the category of ’low wages’, compared with about 40% of employees of Belgian-origin with a low level of education.

The same applies to employees with a high level of education: 57.4% of Belgian employees have a high wage; for employees from Maghreb countries or from a candidate EU Member State, this percentage is only 30%. We therefore conclude that the pay benefits associated with a high level of education vary greatly depending on the origin of the employee.


Ethnostratification refers to the phenomenon where your origin determines in which segment of the labour market you end up in.

The Monitor confirms that people of foreign origin are overrepresented in the employment sectors that pay the worse and that are the most precarious. Usually these are sectors with irregular working hours and hard labour.
Unia mainly identifies an overrepresentation in temporary employment, construction, cleaning and hospitality sectors. Employees of foreign origin now have better access to the labour market, but the gap with employees of Belgian origin remains worryingly high, especially when the breakdown in sectors shows that equal opportunities are non-existent.

A double handicap for women of foreign origin

The 2017 Monitor also points to the important role of family composition and gender. The wage and employment gap between men and women has decreased in the period from 2008 to 2014, but remains large, especially if we take origin into account. This is particularly striking in women with children.

Although women of foreign origin have a higher level of education, we often find them in the lower income categories. The overrepresentation of women of foreign origin with an unemployment benefit confirms the hypothesis of the unemployment trap: the low wage does not allow to compensate for the costs linked to work (crèches, daycare, transport, etc.) and the loss of the unemployment benefit.

The public sector

Although the public sector offers many employment opportunities for people of foreign origin, jobs nevertheless do not appear to be evenly distributed. The sectors administration, education and care are open to women and men of foreign origin and the public transport sector is especially open to men of foreign origin.

With regard to the employment contract, we likewise determine large differences depending on the origin. People of foreign origin usually have contracts as workers or labourers. 58.2% of people of Belgian origin have a civil service contract, while this is less the case for Maghreb people (21.5%) and Africans (15.2%).
This means that people of foreign origin do have access to the public sector, but much less often to the statute of civil servant.

Findings and actions

Origin remains a decisive factor in explaining the inequalities in the labour market. The gap between people of Belgian origin, people from EU Member States and people from outside the EU is obvious and strengthens the inequalities attributable to educational level, gender and age. "Although work - as claimed more often - remains a crucial factor for social integration, we need to pay special attention to those who follow a course to obtain a degree that gives them access to the employment market," says Els Keytsman. "We should not lose sight of the fact that there are indications of discrimination between two candidates with the same education but of different origins."

As an explanation for the disadvantage in the labour market, Unia cites various factors, such as inequality in education or individual and structural discrimination.

The integration of people of foreign origin into the labour market must be at the top of the agenda of the social dialogue. Unia also advocates for the organization of an Interministerial Employment Conference. "Coordinated efforts at all policy and competence levels can lead to structural solutions."

Els Keytsman once again confirms the essential character of anti-discrimination legislation on the labour market. "The fight against discrimination must remain a priority for Ministers of Work, along with training and awareness raising."

Unia also calls for reinforced monitoring of the effective application of anti-discrimination legislation. It recognizes the progress made in Brussels and soon also at the federal level: "Practical tests can make an important contribution to the objective identification of discriminatory behaviour," says Els Keytsman. "A stricter supervision by the authorities will automatically force companies and sectors to self-regulate," concludes Els Keytsman.

This article is written by Unia, which can be accessed here in Dutch and French.

The Socioeconomic Monitor 2017 report can be downloaded here in Dutch and French.

For more information, please visit their website.