Resilient temporary employment sector focuses on transitions, mobilisation and training

Employment law specialist Filip Tilleman invited Ann Cattelain, CEO of Federgon, for a fascinating discussion on the subject of temporary employment. The top woman of the professional federation clarifies the role that the system of temporary work has played during the coronavirus crisis. The talk also covers the challenges and ambitions for the coming years in terms of temporary work. 

What was the impact of the pandemic on temporary employment?

“First and foremost, it dealt a huge blow to the industry,” says Cattelain. Federgon figures show that during the initial period of the coronavirus outbreak in March and April of 2020, the total number of hours of temporary work in Belgium was cut in half. “Obviously, we had never experienced that before,” Cattelain says. In addition, temporary workers initially had no right to temporary unemployment, but following Federgon’s insistence, this soon changed subject to certain conditions.

It is remarkable that from May and June 2020, the figures for temporary employment were already on the rise again. The numbers were not good in the summer of 2020, because there was much less work for students due to coronavirus. “In the autumn, the figures fortunately started to rise again gradually to a level of -15% by the end of 2020 compared to the previous year,” said Cattelain. 

The figures for temporary employment are always very closely monitored by a number of organisations, such as the National Bank. “We are usually the harbinger of an improving economy with our figures,” Cattelain said. The temporary employment sector is always the first to be affected, but it’s also always the first to recover. 

“In 2021, even though the figures may still be slightly negative, temporary employment is actually more or less back to where it was in 2019,” Cattelain notes. Cattelain sees this as a logical consequence of the system of temporary employment that is specifically aimed at bridging short periods and offering the necessary flexibility. That is why temporary employment has bounced back so soon.

“The figures show that as a system, temporary employment is very resilient and has recovered quite quickly after the big coronavirus dip of March 2020.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

Motivating people to return to work during the pandemic

In the initial period of the coronavirus crisis, there was naturally some reluctance on the part of both the employer and the employee to turn to temporary work. Employers were feeling uncertain and employees were properly compensated to stay home. But the system of temporary unemployment costs the government a fortune, and there was also still work that needed to be done. In short, people who were stuck at home in temporary unemployment had to be motivated to return to work, if necessary temporarily in another sector. 

“We have witnessed some very nice projects spring up in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, such as the collaboration between Decathlon and Colruyt,” says Cattelain. During that period, Decathlon had to close its doors temporarily while Colruyt found itself short-staffed. So the solution was obvious. This received little media attention, but this exchange of personnel was organised by a temporary employment agency. Cattelain gives another example, this time from the aviation sector. When air traffic had almost ground to a standstill, Aviato facilitated the temporary transition to other sectors of many personnel working at the airport – also in close cooperation with a number of temporary employment agencies.

However, moving employees from one place to another proved to be no mean feat due to temporary unemployment. Because of the substantial government allowance to stay at home, there was often little incentive for workers to take up temporary work elsewhere. 

“Fortunately, there is such a thing as temporary employment,” says Filip Tilleman, “because there’s almost no sound alternative for a company that is unable to recruit and is looking for temporary workers.” According to Tilleman, thanks to the temporary employment sector, employers and employees find each other relatively easily and so those peaks and troughs can be levelled off.

“There was also much demand in the healthcare sector,” adds Cattelain. “However, as these often proved public or semi-public institutions, they’re not used to working with our sector.” Through training, the temporary employment sector has come up with creative solutions to allow people in training to work as care workers half-time in, for example, a logistics department at a care centre. 

“Temporary employment is mainly known for bringing in workers temporarily at peak times. Less well known is the role that temporary employment plays in keeping businesses afloat during economic downturns and in being able to attract employees again after a trough.” Filip Tilleman, employment law specialist Tilleman Van Hoogenbemt

The temporary employment sector also gives scope to specific groups and communities

“The necessity of temporary employment is fortunately no longer an issue in Belgium,” Cattelain states. The temporary employment sector has always wanted to be there for people who want to prove themselves or who would not so easily get a permanent contract. “Thanks to a temp contract, these people get the opportunity to show what they’re capable of. This certainly also applies to a number of groups and communities that have a more difficult time on the job market, such as people without a qualification. Otherwise, there’s a good chance they’ll end up on the dole.”

Federgon wants to promote this role of temporary employment even more and further enhance the reputation of the sector. The ambition is that temporary work – even for the more highly qualified and people with experience – is accepted as a normal stopgap measure. 

For example, Federgon has a training fund with short-term courses to get people back to work quickly.

Temporary employment is on the rise

The figures for temporary work are gradually shifting: a few years ago, more than half of temporary workers were under the age of 25. Today, the age curve is nicely distributed across all ages. Today, there are plenty of initiatives and offices that focus specifically on slightly older employees. “We see in our data a lot of people over 50, also over 60 and even pensioners who are approached through temporary work,” adds Cattelain.

“We also increasingly notice the need among young people to rely on short-term contracts,” adds Cattelain. Student work is a good example of this. “We also very much seek to reach that group at Federgon, so that the future generation can get to know the job market and temporary work.” 

Cattelain: “We are moving more and more towards a candidate-driven job market.” A number of temporary employment agencies are already responding to this by saying that they will find the job when you are free and feel like working. “We’re seeing more and more systems where the temp agency and the temp worker mutually agree on which periods to work and which not. There is then a specific search for those jobs that make that possible.” 

A number of experiments involving open-ended temporary employment contracts are also underway. That hasn’t been a priority for a while, but it’s popping up again now, Cattelain points out. 

Filip Tilleman: “An employer can sack someone with an open-ended contract at any time. A fixed-term contract of three years often provides more security than an open-ended contract. You’re then almost certain it’s going to be three years, whereas with open-ended, it could be over any day.”

“The certainty of the open-ended contract is, in fact, a myth. A permanent contract does not offer absolute job security. Quite the opposite, a fixed-term contract of three years often provides more security than an open-ended contract.” Filip Tilleman, employment law specialist Tilleman Van Hoogenbemt

Temporary employment offers the necessary legal guarantees for temporary workers

Filip Tilleman: “Some people claim that a temporary contract is inferior. They forget that there’s an incredibly strict legal framework in Belgium.” Tilleman refers to the extremely important Article 10. That article says that a temporary worker must receive exactly the same pay as a permanent employee. This is a very compelling argument for Tilleman to claim that agency contracts are full-fledged contracts, “because an agency worker cannot be paid less.” So the only difference is often the short duration.

Tilleman: “It’s a clear signal, by the way, that the CEO of the sector federation has a legal background, with a solid legal department that is by far the largest department at Federgon. This illustrates the seriousness and professionalism of the sector. The temporary employment sector is firmly entrenched in the legal landscape and the perception has improved greatly in that regard, just as well.” 

A strong plea for transition processes

Federgon argues for more mobility on the job market and for smoother transitions between jobs. In this context, temporary employment can be used even more as a kind of buffer contract between two jobs. In the new concept of transition paths, the idea is to be able to get a taste of a new job with another employer while still in employment. In the event of dismissal or long-term illness, for example, these people are given the opportunity to test the water with a new employer. All this thanks to a transition temp contract.

Cattelain gives another example for transition paths in banking. “There are a number of 50-year olds in the banking sector who are at a dead end job-wise, have an entire career behind them and are only looking at the banking sector,” says Cattelain. These people may well never consider working in temporary employment. Federgon would like to see transition temp contracts used there as well to encourage those people to explore new horizons. “So even for senior profiles and white-collar workers with a lot of experience, we think that this is a normal, and should feel like a logical, step. After all, we will all be working longer and it is therefore even more important that each employee feels happy in their job,” says Cattelain.

“Thanks to our solutions, people who sometimes find themselves side-tracked after a long career can still experience new job satisfaction.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

The idea of transition paths also builds on the concept that is applied in HR circles to share staff. Federgon says that based on current legislation, Article 31, you can’t just make personnel available between companies. The biggest exception is temporary workers. After all, the very role of temporary employment agencies is to provide personnel. “So that system is tailor-made for temp agencies, as they have the most experience in it,” concludes Cattelain. 

Labour law must be updated as a matter of urgency

Employees are changing and their flexible career paths require labour law to be updated, Cattelain argues. According to her, a reform is needed in a number of areas to achieve the 80% employment rate set by the federal government. 

“If we don’t all want to pay a lot more taxes or make huge cuts, there’s only one solution and that’s to get more people to work,” Cattelain says firmly. In this context, Federgon embraces three themes: Mobilisation, Transition and Training (Lifelong Learning). 

“It’s all about a warm transition from one job to another and not sitting back with benefits and waiting for something to fall into your lap. After all, the longer you’re inactive, the harder it is to find your place in the job market again.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

For example, an employer may have too many staff on its books or staff that no longer suit the company’s evolution. The question then arises whether the employer would fire that employee.

Federgon wants to propose an alternative to sacking people. “Focus on intensive mentoring, training and offer them a transition path while they’re still employed, where they continue to be paid by their current employer,” Cattelain explains. This will give them a taste of a different type of job, in a sector they might not have considered otherwise and in the context of a traditional temporary employment relationship between the new employer and the temporary employment agency. 

The only difference is that with traditional temporary work, the temp agency sends the invoice and pays the wages. This is no longer necessary in the case of transition paths, because it is a worthwhile exercise in that the current employer continues to retain the advantages, which gives the employee more peace of mind. “That’s why we would like to add a clause to Article 10 of the Temporary Employment Act that in a transition path, the wages are no longer paid by the temporary employment agency, but by the current employer,” says Cattelain. 

Cattelain: “In order to complete the circle, it is also our intention to return the salary to the current employer so that this neutralises the impact for him. In addition to a clause to avoid double pay, we would also like to move towards a reduction in social security contributions – or, better yet, an exemption from them – in order to cover this intensive coaching throughout the entire path, as well as the training. These experts in coaching and outplacement do a fantastic job in guiding people to suitable new jobs,” says Cattelain. “Moreover, the temporary employment sector is, by definition, intersectoral and, therefore, there’s a greater chance that we can find the ideal match in another company and/or in another sector. After all, everyone deserves their ideal place in the job market.”

“Those who receive a sum of money upon dismissal are often insufficiently motivated to look for new work immediately. We see that people often wait too long, sometimes until they run out of money, to look for another job. But then it’s much harder, because by then, some of the skills and work attitudes are gone.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

Article 39ter has been the subject of much heated debate between social partners, which they want to use to trigger severance pay. They still haven’t figured it out. “We don’t want to wait for that,” says Cattelain. “Above all, we want the government to invest in an NSSO exemption, precisely to avoid paying unemployment benefits. The cost for the current employer who wants to dismiss some of his temp staff will certainly not be higher than for a traditional dismissal. The aim is for the employee to opt for the new employment and transfer. That’s a win-win, because the employee remains in the job market.” So they won’t just be sent home with a sum of money. So to some extent, it’s also about pushing outplacement ahead; so no longer after the dismissal, but before the dismissal, so that there’s no longer a dismissal. An alternative could be that the notice period is used to get a flavour of the new job.

Cattelain explains that there’s still a (severance/termination) payment due for the employee who immediately accepts a new job to make it as attractive as possible for them as well. “During the transition path, we provide a waiver of performance, so that the salary and benefits, including group insurance, can continue as before,” clarifies Cattelain. “This is very convenient for the employee, because everything continues as before and they can start working elsewhere straight away.” 

The reintegration of the long-term sick and those suffering from burnout

In fact, Cattelain can even see the solution working for people who have been ill for a long time by getting them on transition paths. In Belgium, almost 500,000 people are on long-term incapacity for work. “Our vision is that a long-term sick person first considers whether they want, and indeed can, return to their current employers, but in many cases this will not be the case. This is why we want to find alternatives more quickly that can provide solutions for the long-term sick who want to return to work,” explains Cattelain. “At the end of the transition path, they can get permanent contracts with new employers.” So a transition contract is a kind of buffer contract and can offer a lower-risk solution for the new employer and more scope for the employee.

“A transition path can also be useful in case of burnout,” Cattelain believes. 

Federgon has drafted a 12-point plan for the reintegration of the long-term sick, as this topic is currently being discussed at federal level. “The interviews reveal that of the almost 500,000 people who face long-term illness, a very large proportion of them is felled by burnout or suffers from back, muscle and neck problems. And this last group can also be partly narrowed down to the group of mental disorders,” says Cattelain.

Cattelain sees the same happening as before with dismissals: “These people fall back on benefits and then nothing happens for months – sometimes even a year or two. Then suddenly they are contacted with the question if they want to get back to work, but that’s too late.”

Reintegration with the same employer is often not a solution for burnout. Cattelain: “After all, a conflict with a colleague or employer often underlies a burnout. But forcing someone to go back to work after a period of being off sick is often not the solution. After all, employees may be anxious about going back to the existing environment where things went wrong in the first place. You have to dare to break this cycle. After a few months, employers usually have no choice but to find another solution to get the work done. An alternative solution in the form of a transition path could be the right way forward.

The role of temporary employment with a view to keeping people in work longer

Cattelain: “Federgon intends to go the extra mile in order to change the perception of temporary employment among the entire population. We want to play a role in the pivotal moments of people’s lives. Hence the transition paths. They will also help to achieve the 80% employment rate target. So we hope that the relevant ministers and governments will support us in this so that we can start launching this scheme.” 

“Everything is interconnected. People work longer, we need more people in work, we need to make sure people are mobilised.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

Cattelain explains that more people are retiring than joining the workforce. This leads to labour shortages. One solution, she says, is to make sure more people are available for work.

Some temporary employment agencies are already targeting more senior employees specifically. “You notice that shift toward older employees,” Cattelain notes. “It’s also a welcome development that someone who has retired and doesn’t like sitting at home all day can stay employed through temp work.” 

The temporary employment sector as pioneer in digitising the job market 

“We in the temp sector are always trying to be a bit of a pioneer,” says Cattelain, “even in digitisation.” Temporary employment agencies obviously have many employees at their disposal: the temps. The idea is not to have them come to the office all of the time. That’s why the sector wants to digitise. 

Since about five years ago, agency workers no longer have to come to the office to sign paperwork. In fact, for a few years now, printing documents, sending letters by post or filing manually have been a thing of the past in the temping sector, explains Cattelain. Employment contracts are uploaded on a platform and the temp signs them online, usually via their smartphone. 

“Federgon and UnifiedPost have managed to create a sector platform that connects almost all recognised temporary employment agencies, including the SMEs,” Cattelain clarifies.

“Moreover, we were able to convince politicians to amend the 1987 Act. Even the trade unions have come on board, because employee contracts became more straightforward and with a clear history of any changes,” says Cattelain. In this way, a win-win-win was achieved. 

“Nearly 15 million contracts are entered into and managed digitally in our industry each year. The signing rate of contracts by temps has also risen sharply thanks to this digitisation, which is welcomed by the trade unions.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

“It’s also proven a solution in coronavirus times,” adds Tilleman. “The business world doesn’t fully realise yet that you can legally sign contracts digitally as well. In that sense, the temporary employment industry is making other companies aware of this digital option.” 

Cattelain: “In the old days, when people stayed at the same company for almost all of their careers, it made sense to have a solemn moment and sign contracts in the office. But these days, with often shorter employment contracts, as for example in the distribution or logistics sector or in the service voucher sector (which also falls under Federgon, Ed.), it is convenient to digitise this completely.” 

The next step Federgon wants to take is the ‘WorkID’. This is an electronic identity card with a work portfolio for each temp. The temps can manage this themselves and share certain information with a potential employer if they so wish. “At the moment, every time a temp enters a different temporary employment agency, they still have to negotiate all the red tape first,” explains Cattelain. Federgon wants to facilitate and promote this WorkID for the entire industry – all in accordance with GDPR rules, of course. “Ultimately, a WorkID is useful for every employee, because you can link it to the learning account, for example,” adds Cattelain. 

Cattelain sees the learning account as a digital ‘rucksack’ which every employee can access and which contains a credit for training and coaching with a partner of their choice. Because employees often have difficulty assessing their own training needs, the learning account can start with a straightforward scan to test whether you have certain skills or knowledge. Based on that diagnosis, you then receive a proposal to attend a certain course. You will then receive an offer of training and training providers. “That, in our opinion, is more motivating than giving the right to five training days, as it is currently on the table,” says Cattelain. 

“At Federgon, we strongly believe in empowering people without leaving them to their own devices. In addition to a learning account, (career) guidance is also important to arm people for the future. After all, you only make the most of a training course if you also have proper coaching.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

Another example of a useful application of digitisation is the legislation surrounding the employment of foreign workers. “Steps have been taken with the ‘single permit’, but we want to move towards a database for all foreign workers, so that as an employer, you can quickly see if someone is allowed to work or not,” says Cattelain. By this, the CEO of Federgon does not only mean foreigners who are brought here to work, but also those who are already here. She claims that in the past, there have been many misunderstandings around interpretations between the regional (labour) and federal (residence) authorities. That’s why Federgon argues in favour of a database.

“In Belgium, everything is linked to the national registry number,” Cattelain clarifies. “We would like to use that national number even before the employment relationship starts. You can’t do much with a photo or with the names alone, because there are many similar-looking names and people. We have to be certain, in the interest of all those involved, that we are dealing with the right person.”

Trade unions and the temporary employment sector can be partners

Tilleman: “Every year, trade unions come up with wild-goose stories about temporary agency work, which intend to put the sector in a bad light. That’s pure delusion. You’re always going to find an example where things went wrong among the hundreds of thousands of temp contracts, but you’ll find those in amongst permanent contracts as well. However, to tar an entire sector with the same brush is hardly fair. This attitude is often fed by the notion that ‘we only want permanent employees’.

Cattelain agrees: “for unions, the only fully-fledged contract is an open-ended contract or civil service status.” Federgon’s top woman adds that she usually has a constructive relationship with unions. “There are those who have a very positive outlook, but they also have to be able to have their voices heard. Sometimes by means of fun campaigns, like the ice cubes or balloons at our offices in Tour & Taxis. That’s part and parcel of it.”

So consultation is certainly not a bad thing. The sector negotiations are about to start and Cattelain hopes that a sector agreement will be reached. “Personally, I’m mainly looking for things that we can achieve together, rather than to keep banging on about things we don’t agree on. For example, as far as the transition paths are concerned, we hope that the trade unions will start to realise that it’s not a bad thing for them to go along with those as well.”

Tackling illegal employment agencies is another example where Federgon can work hand in hand with trade unions. “So that’s where we can work with unions in partnership,” says Cattelain. “In the Limosa stats (‘Cross-country Information System for Migration Research at the Social Administration Department’, Ed.), we have noticed that there are very many foreign temporary employment companies that don’t declare their temporary employment activities because they don’t want to respect the Belgian legal framework and refuse to pay the correct wages or offer the right guarantees. Instead, they sign up as subcontractors, trying to bypass the law. However, efforts will now be made to combat these practices. For Federgon, a proper level playing field is important.” 

Federgon wants to tackle this fine line between temporary work and subcontracting, as this often involves illegal temporary employment agencies active on the Belgian market. This concerns several hundred companies, often concentrated in construction in the broad sense and meat-processing. For Federgon, a temporary employment agency must be recognised. The problem, according to Cattelain, is that some of the obligations, such as Limosa, are federal and those foreign companies do not take the regional recognitions sufficiently into account. Because the recognition of employment agencies is a regional matter with a Flemish, Brussels and Walloon recognition committee. In Federgon’s view, they’re only temporary employment agencies once they’ve actually acquired regional recognition, but many of these foreign companies don’t have this recognition and they don’t have any guarantees for their employees in the event of bankruptcy, nor do they respect Article 10 on wages or pay a statutory end-of-year bonuses, for example. “So there’s still some work to be done there,” Cattelain acknowledges. “It’s a lot more difficult for the inspectorates to gather all the necessary information from these foreign players than it is from a Belgian certified temporary employment agency with a clear track record. Finally, in addition to this recognition, Federgon works with a quality label for temporary employment agencies.” 

“It’s one of my jobs, of course, to establish good social relations. We have taken a number of steps around training temporary workers and pension contributions in different sectors. So we’re certainly doing what’s necessary to address some of the unions’ concerns.” Ann Cattelain, CEO Federgon

A bright future for the temporary employment sector

According to Cattelain, the temporary employment sector showed resilience during the coronavirus period.  She says there are a lot of great projects underway, including transition paths and initiatives helping to achieve the 80% employment rate through Mobilisation, Transition and Training. Federgon’s CEO is also looking at the sector negotiations ahead with confidence. 

Cattelain believes that sharing staff is a skill in itself. The HR world, too, is becoming increasingly aware of this. “There’s a lot more to it than simply shifting employees around; there are countless things that need to be established in advance in a contract: what if someone falls ill, what if someone takes leave, what if someone wants to attend a course, …? Temporary employment agencies have a pre-existing legal framework, supported by the social partners, and have made the provision, and sharing, of staff their core business for many years.”

“Our members get regular checks, but those go well because they’re well organised and we’re quite proud of that as an industry,” concludes Cattelain. “We score very well even in terms of diversity. We employ the highest number of employees of immigrant origin, have a lot of senior staff on our books and so on. We give opportunities to many otherwise hard-to-reach groups and communities. But our industry is very decentralised, from Arlon right across to Ostend, and the possibility of an ill-judged assessment is always there, but I certainly feel comfortable with how our industry is addressing the challenges of the job market.”

Ann Cattelain has been CEO of Federgon since 2020. She obtained a Master’s degree in law at KU Leuven and a postgraduate degree at the Brussels Tax College and started her career in the insurance sector. She joined Federgon as a Legal Advisor back in 1998 and became their Legal Director in 2005. Every year, Federgon members assist more than 1 million people in or towards a job.

The sectors represented by Federgon:

  • Temporary Employment
  • Learning & Development
  • Outplacement 
  • Interim Management 
  • Recruitment, Search & Selection 
  • Services to consumers
  • Project sourcing
  • Wellbeing
  • Career guidance
  • HR Tech

Website: www.federgon.be