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Belgium - National Level

Short overview of the labour market


Situated at the heart of Europe, Belgium is a federal state that is subdivided into communities and regions.

In Belgium, powers relating to employment are shared between the Federal Government on the one hand, and the regions and the German-speaking community on the other.

It is the federal government’s task to create a framework that promotes the optimal development of employment and solidarity, and to ensure that all citizens have equal rights and opportunities. The communities and regions guarantee, above all, optimal conditions for access to and participation in the labour market, and develop (re)integration initiatives geared to their specific situation, ensuring that everyone enjoys equal opportunities.

The population legally registered in Belgium as at 1 January 2018 is 11 376 070 million inhabitants, 57.6% of whom reside in Flanders, 31.9% in Wallonia, 10.5% in the Brussels-Capital Region and less than 1% in the municipalities of the German-speaking community. The population has experienced an annual growth of 53 982 people, or 0.50%. This growth is primarily attributable to net international migration. The population traditionally consists of slightly more women (51% or 5 778 164 people) than men (49% or 5 597 906 people).

Meanwhile, the age distribution continues to illustrate the effect of the ‘ageing of the population’: there are now almost 2.13 million people aged 65 or over, representing 18.7% of the population. The number of young people (<18 years) has also increased, to 2.301 million, but they account for only 20.2% of the population. The ‘working age’ population (aged between 18 and 64) totals 6.944 million (61%).

In Belgium, 68.5% of the population between the ages of 20 and 64 are in work, while 7.1% of the active population are looking for work (figures for 2017). The inactive population is mainly composed of young people (students) and older people ((early) retirees). There are, however, major differences between the regions in Belgium. Flanders has the highest level of employment and the lowest unemployment rate.

The European Union has a higher employment level than Belgium: the proportion of active employees in the EU is 72.2% on average. Nevertheless, the level of unemployment in the EU (7.6%) is slightly higher than in Belgium (7.1%).

The Belgian employment situation may be typically described as resembling the shape of a lemon, with employment being heavily concentrated in the middle age category (25-54), while relatively few young people (who usually continue in education for a long time) and older people (who frequently take early retirement) are in work. Studying longer is a positive development, because it considerably increases the chances of finding employment, but early retirement has become unaffordable for the State and it is currently taking steps to discourage it by raising the ages at which people may retire.

Despite the fact that young people are studying longer, unemployment among young people remains very high in Belgium: 19.3%, which is slightly higher than the EU average (16.8%). It is worth noting that 12.7% of young people aged 15 and over leave education with no qualifications (without a certificate or with only a certificate of primary education). They therefore have much less chance of finding work than young people with secondary or higher qualifications.

Many people in Belgium commute, to work in a different region from that in which they live, or even commute abroad (‘cross-border workers’). Most commuting is from Flanders and Wallonia to the Brussels-Capital Region, where there are more jobs than members of the active population.

Most employment in Belgium is in services. There are not very many major industrial companies in Belgium; one such company though is the steel giant Arcelor Mittal, which is based mainly in Wallonia; the car manufacturer Volvo Cars is based in Ghent in Flanders. The top 10 places are all occupied by service industries in the transport and communication, finance and distribution/retail sectors. The list includes Bpost, the bank BNP Paribas Fortis, ING Belgium and KBC Bank, HR Rail, Colruyt Group, Proximus, the Delhaize Group, Carrefour Belgium and Randstad.

The principal sector with the highest number of workers in Belgium is the tertiary sector (services), which accounts for 68.8% of its GDP (gross domestic product). Commerce, transport and HoReCa (hotels, restaurants and catering) make up the bulk of this sector. Next come public administration, education and business services with 19%.


Text last edited on: 04/2019

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