Social Quality and the Policy Domain of Employment in Belgium

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

What's in a name? 'Social quality' is an attractive yet vague concept. It has an appeal in the context of post-industrial aspirations to rise above the quantitative and the material, towards qualitative, immaterial goals; it emphasises 'social' aspects that lie beyond individualistic preoccupations and are oriented towards considerations of collectivity and solidarity. These aspects can be represented in terms of two dimensions (Figure 1), where the notion of social quality is situated in the upper left quadrant. But does this show the real content of this 'container concept', and does it reflect present everyday reality?


The concept of social quality has been adapted (or rather adopted) in the context of the labour market in terms of the notion of 'flexicurity'. We shall discover that to an important extent this notion includes both ends of the dimensions; in other words, it is not what it seems.

At the end of the 1990s the Belgian economy showed a high level of social protection, even after decades of public debate on the shrinking the state. Recent decades had, for the most part, seen continued economic growth, with a boom during the late 1990s. Yet, at the same time, the full employment once achieved in the early 1970s remained a lost paradise, leaving a large number of people not, or no longer, active in the labour market. To put it another way, one substantial group was left with permanent insecurity and the other with an increased threat of insecurity and pressure for more flexibility. This double dependency created additional pressure on the welfare state and public finances to accommodate these shifts, using means both traditional (unemployment benefits, early pensions, training, family support, additional fiscal and parafiscal incentives) and new (new personal services, new combinations of work and family life, paid informal care and child allowances, time credits). The traditional role of the state, and particularly the welfare state, in insuring against and financing certain risks and needs throughout the life cycle of individuals and families, has involved socialising risk premiums. The traditional risks still exist, but new individual needs are now being formulated and met. Many still relate to the life cycle; others are determined by the needs of the economy, the need for self-fulfilment or a symbiosis of both (training and lifelong learning). The socialisation of these new needs reflects the dawn of an ever-improving welfare state ('toujours davantage', 'always more'); but might it also have detrimental effects on the traditional welfare state, taking it into a twilight zone?

2. The Workforce and the Quality of the Industrial Structure

In 2001 the Belgian workforce reached 4.4 million, of which around 4 million were active as employees or self-employed. A further 0.4 million were unemployed in the narrow sense. More than 1/3 of employment is located in the public or so-called quaternary sector. In the last quarter century (1973-99), expressed in FTE, employment in the market sector declined by almost 15 percent, while the volume of jobs in the quaternary sector increased by 65 percent. The total volume of paid employment remained constant over that period, which means that its level was maintained entirely by expansion in the public sector, first by expanding administration and education, later by expansion in the health sector and, in the last decade, in the social and the cultural sector (Pacolet, 2001). Self-employment fell slightly, but remains at a high level from a European perspective. The same is true of public employment. Belgium is close to the Scandinavian countries with regard to public employment, and to the Mediterranean countries in its rate of self-employment (Pacolet and Van Damme, 2002).

To a large extent the public sector comprises not only the classical functions of the state, but also increasingly better-staffed services of the so-called welfare state. …