The Kingdom of Belgium is a parliamentary democracy with a limited constitutional monarchy. The country is a federal state with several levels of government: national; regional (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels); language community (Dutch, French, and German); provincial; and local. The Federal Council of Ministers, headed by the prime minister, remains in office if it retains the confidence of the lower house (Chamber of Representatives) of the bicameral parliament. Elections are held at six different levels: communal, provincial, regional, by language community, federal, and European. In 2019 the country held federal parliamentary elections that observers considered free and fair.
The federal police are responsible for internal security and nationwide law and order, including migration and border enforcement. They report to the ministers of interior and justice. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Numerous complaints were filed against members of the security services who allegedly committed abuses. Some of the security service members awaited rulings in court.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: attacks and hate speech motivated by anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment; and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, and intersex persons.
Authorities generally took steps to identify, investigate, and where appropriate, prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.
In August 2020 a video came to light of a two-year-old incident at the Charleroi airport showing a group of police officers subduing an apparently unstable Slovak citizen by putting a blanket over his head and sitting on him, while at one point an officer made a Hitler salute. The man died shortly following the encounter. Following the leak of the video, Director General of the Federal Police Andre Desenfants stepped down from his duties for three months while investigations took place. After the investigations, Desenfants received a 10 percent pay cut for two months for failing to respond properly to the man’s death, costing him 1,500 euros ($1,770). A final reenactment of the events was scheduled for September 27-28 as part of the investigation. On August 23, media outlets reported that according to the autopsy, the man’s death was caused by a tranquilizer injection administered to him at the time of his detention.
In August the UN Committee against Torture issued a report condemning excessive use of force by police in the deaths of several persons in custody since 2014.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. There were some reports, however, that prison staff physically mistreated prisoners.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alleged excessive use of force by police, noting that it had increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April Amnesty International delivered a report to parliament denouncing “violations of the human rights of detainees” in connection with the problem. In August the UN Committee against Torture issued a report condemning widespread mistreatment and excessive use of force by police. The report also expressed concern regarding the excessive use of weapons, such as tear gas, batons, and water cannons, to disperse crowds protesting COVID-19 restrictions in April and May.
Impunity in the security forces was not a significant problem.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions did not always meet international standards. Prison conditions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, presented health risks due to overcrowding, hygiene problems, inadequate physical activity, and lack of access to materials and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a problem. As of June 2020, there were 10,363 inmates in prisons that had a maximum capacity of 9,600.
In an April report on the human rights situation in 149 countries, Amnesty International criticized the COVID-19 situation in Belgian prisons.
On April 6, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that the country had violated the European Convention on Human Rights for holding mentally ill persons in prison rather than in psychiatric institutions. The ECHR issued the ruling following a complaint filed by five inmates who were found to lack criminal responsibility for their actions due to mental illness but were held in the psychiatric wings of prisons without access to appropriate therapy. The ECHR previously ruled against the country for the same abuse in 2012, 2016, and 2019. As of 2019 there were 537 mentally ill inmates in prison.
In August the UN Committee against Torture issued a report reiterating concerns about prison conditions, including overcrowding and the dilapidated state of prison facilities.
Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. The federal mediator acts as an ombudsman, allowing any citizen to address problems with prison administration. The federal mediator is an independent entity appointed by the Chamber of Representatives to investigate and resolve problems between citizens and public institutions.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, among them several domestic committees.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements. International, regional, and national institutions have the right to access facilities where migrants and asylum seekers are housed or detained for monitoring and observation purposes.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Under the constitution, an individual may be arrested only while committing a crime or by a judge’s order, which must be carried out within 48 hours. The law provides detainees the right to prompt judicial determination of the legality of their detention, and authorities generally respected this right. Authorities promptly informed detainees of charges against them and provided access to an attorney (at public expense if necessary). Alternatives to incarceration included conditional release, community service, probation, and electronic monitoring. There was a functioning bail system, and a suspect could be released by meeting other obligations or conditions as determined by the judge.
On January 19, a man suspected of shoplifting and illegal stay in the country died in police custody. According to the media outlet Le Soir, police recognized his illegal status and referred the case to the Belgian Immigration Office, which issued an order following his arrest for him to leave Belgian territory. Normally, following an immigration determination, the man should have signed the order and been released from police custody. Police, however, failed to follow these procedures, instead keeping him in custody. At some point during his detention, the man became unresponsive and was pronounced dead several hours later. The autopsy ruled out overdose or violence as the cause of his death and an investigation was underway.
On January 24, police arrested 245 persons, including 86 minors, during an unauthorized protest against police violence in Brussels. The Brussels public prosecutor and the parliamentary police oversight committee, Comite P, opened an investigation following several reports of police violence and unjustified arrests in connection with the protest. The police union ACOD denounced the Brussels police’s actions in an open letter to the mayor of Brussels, asserting that arrest procedures and COVID-19 measures were not respected.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.
Defendants are presumed innocent and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them; to a fair, timely, and public trial; to be present at their trial; to communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense if unable to pay); to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to have free assistance of an interpreter (for any defendant who cannot understand or speak the language used in court); to confront prosecution or plaintiff witnesses and present one’s own witnesses and evidence; to not be compelled to testify or confess guilt; and to appeal. The law extends these rights to all defendants.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations could seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts and appeal national-level court decisions to the ECHR.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The government has laws and mechanisms in place, and NGOs and advocacy groups, including the country’s Jewish community, reported that the government had resolved virtually all Holocaust-era claims where ownership can be traced, including for foreign citizens. Remaining issues included restituting art and researching the role of the Belgian railways in transporting Jews and other victims to concentration camps where many were killed.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly in July 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and legal code prohibit such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
For companies with more than 50 employees, the law provides workers the right to form and join independent unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively. Workers in smaller companies were able to choose representatives to affiliate with a union but did not enjoy the same level of protection. Apart from the armed forces, civil servants in general, including members of the police force, and all private-sector employees are entitled to engage in strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Workers exercised these rights. Citizen and noncitizen workers enjoyed the same rights. Work council elections are mandatory in enterprises with more than 100 employees, and safety and health committee elections are mandatory in companies with more than 50 employees. Essential workers must declare their intention to participate in strike action at least 72 hours in advance, a requirement that unions said exposed workers to undue pressure from employers.
The government effectively enforced the law, but freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were not consistently respected by employers. Employers often resorted to the courts when strikes were announced, and courts often preemptively prohibited strikes. Employers can fire union representatives if they pay them compensation. Union representatives were seldom reinstated, as employers chose to pay statutory severance instead. Unions also denounced a practice among employers of dismissing worker representatives just before union elections. According to the International Trade Union Conference, 96 representatives were fired under these circumstances in 2019. Penalties for violating the law were commensurate with those for other violations. Worker organizations were generally free to function outside of government control. Unions complained that judicial intervention in collective disputes undermined collective bargaining rights.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but such practices occurred. The government generally enforced the law; resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were adequate. Legal penalties included fines and prison terms and were commensurate with similar serious crimes.
In a report published in December 2020, the Interfederal Center for Migration (Myria) reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to protect human traffickers and render cases of forced labor less visible. Myria reported a decreased capacity for detection because the social security labor inspection services were unable to safely complete field checks. The report also noted that it was often impossible to solicit support from police forces, which were overwhelmed with enforcing health and safety measures because of the pandemic. There was a significant drop in reports of cases of forced labor, from 3.15 cases per day in 2019 to 0.55 during 2020.
Instances of forced and compulsory labor included men, generally undocumented migrants, who were forced to work in restaurants, bars, sweatshops, horticulture, fruit farms, construction, cleaning businesses, and retail shops. Men and women were subjected to forced domestic service, including in the diplomatic community. Forced begging continued, particularly in the Romani community.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age of employment is 15. Persons between the ages of 15 and 18 may participate in part-time work/study programs and work full time up to a limited number of hours during the school year. The Ministry of Employment regulated industries that employ juvenile workers to ensure that labor laws were followed; it occasionally granted waivers for children temporarily employed by modeling agencies and in the entertainment business. Waivers were granted on a short-term basis and for a clearly defined performance or purpose that had to be listed in the law as an acceptable activity. The law clearly defines, according to the age of the child, the maximum amount of time that may be worked daily and the frequency of performances. A child’s earnings must be paid to a bank account under the name of the child, and the money is inaccessible until the child reaches 18 years of age.
There are laws and policies to protect children from exploitation in the workplace. The government generally enforced these laws with adequate resources and inspections; such practices reportedly occurred mainly in restaurants. Persons found in violation of child labor laws face penalties that were commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Labor laws and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status, but permit companies to prohibit outward displays of religious affiliation, including headscarves (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
The law requires companies with at least 50 employees to provide a clear overview of their compensation plans, a detailed breakdown by gender of their wages and fringe benefits, a gender-neutral classification of functions, and the possibility of appointing a mediator to address and follow up on gender-related problems. The law requires that one-third of the board members of publicly traded companies be women.
The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service generally enforced regulations effectively. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar violations. Trade unions or media sometimes escalated cases, and UNIA often took a position or acted as an intermediary to find solutions or to support alleged victims in the courts.
Some employers discriminated in employment and occupation against women, persons with disabilities, and members of certain minority groups as well as against internal and foreign migrant workers. The government took legal action based on antidiscrimination laws. UNIA facilitated arbitration or other settlements in some cases of discrimination. Settlements could involve monetary payments, community service, or other penalties.
The Federal Institute for the Equality of Men and Women is responsible for promoting gender equality and may initiate lawsuits if it discovers violations of equality laws. Most complaints received during the year were work related and concerned the termination of employment due to pregnancy. Economic discrimination against women continued. According to the EU statistical office Eurostat, women’s hourly wage rates were 5.8 percent less than those of their male colleagues in 2019.
The employment rate for persons with disabilities in the public sector was much lower than the quotas and targets set by public authorities.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wages and Hour Laws: There is a monthly national minimum wage, and it is higher than the official poverty income level.
The standard workweek is 38 hours, and workers are entitled to four weeks of annual leave. Departure from these norms can occur under a collective bargaining agreement, but work may not exceed 11 hours per day or 50 hours per week. A rest period of at least 11 hours is required between work periods. Overtime is paid at a time-and-a-half premium on Monday through Saturday and double time on Sundays. The law forbids or limits excessive overtime. Without specific authorization, an employee may not work more than 65 hours of overtime during any one quarter. The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service generally enforced wage and hour regulations effectively.
On September 24, some unions led a protest of several thousand workers over the “1996 law,” which prevents wages from rising faster than in neighboring countries.
Occupational Safety and Health: Occupational safety and health standards were appropriate for the main industries. Inspectors from both the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Social Security enforced labor regulations. These ministries jointly worked to ensure that standards were effectively enforced in all sectors and that wages and working conditions were consistent with collective bargaining agreements. Inspectors have the authority to conduct unannounced visits and levy sanctions. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The primary responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with inspectors and not with the worker. The Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service protected employees in this situation. Wage, overtime, and occupational safety violations were most common in the restaurant, construction, and logistics industries. Some employers still operated below legal standards.
On September 29, a man died at the AccelorMittal factory in Ghent while work was being carried out on a conveyor belt. According to media reports, a roller broke off the conveyor belt and hit the victim in the head. AccelorMittal reported leading an investigation into the circumstances of the accident. Media also reported that the labor inspection services were onsite and could designate a technical expert to lead an independent investigation if deemed necessary.
Civil society organizations, such as advocacy groups and media outlets, raised concerns about the effectiveness of the government’s efforts to ensure worker safety during the COVID-19 crisis. According to Amnesty International, the government failed to preserve individuals’ right to health, life, and nondiscrimination due to several factors, including but not limited to the insufficient provision of personal protective equipment for care workers. In addition, there were serious concerns about migrant workers’ safety and well-being. Nearly 150,000 undocumented migrant workers who had lived in the country for years, if not decades, lacked access to social safety net programs and routinely worked long hours for little pay in the informal economy. The lack of access to social safety net programs was particularly problematic, since many migrant workers lost their jobs and struggled to find other employment opportunities due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Informal Sector: Workers in the informal economy are covered by the same wage, hours, and safety regulations as workers in the formal economy, but regulations were not consistently enforced. As of 2017, informal labor was estimated to make up approximately 3.6 percent of the country’s GDP and often consisted of undocumented migrants and students. A specialized governmental department, the Information and Social Research Service, created to oversee the informal economy, conducted more than 10,000 inspections in 2020 and initiated investigations, mainly in the construction, restaurant and hotel, and cleaning sectors. Infringements of workers’ rights were found in 42 percent of inspections; of those, 41 percent were in the construction sector, 55 percent in bars and restaurants, and 64 percent in carwash businesses. Authorities may fine employers for poor working conditions but may also treat such cases as trafficking in persons.