2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Belgium
|Publisher||United States Department of State|
|Author||Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor|
|Publication Date||25 February 2009|
|Cite as||United States Department of State, 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Belgium, 25 February 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49a8f1a7c.html [accessed 4 August 2015]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2009
The Kingdom of Belgium, with a population of approximately 10.5 million, is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch who plays a mainly symbolic role. The country is a federal state with several levels of government: national, regional (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels), language community (Flemish, French, and German), provincial, and local. The Council of Ministers (cabinet), led by the prime minister, holds office as long as it retains the confidence of the lower house (Chamber of Representatives) of the bicameral parliament. Federal parliamentary elections held in 2007 and monitored by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers were free and fair. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.
The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and the judiciary provided effective means of addressing individual instances of abuse. The following human rights problems were reported: overcrowded prisons, lengthy pretrial detention, poor detention conditions prior to expulsion of adults and children whose asylum applications were refused, violence against women, child abuse, trafficking in persons, and racial and ethnic discrimination in the job market.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions met most international standards, but overcrowding remained a problem in a system where approximately 10,000 inmates occupied facilities with a design capacity of 8,422. The government upgraded some older facilities, but incarcerations outpaced construction. The Justice Ministry began implementing the 2008-12 master plan for building seven additional penitentiaries and upgrading existing infrastructure. Foreign nationals accounted for approximately 40 percent of all inmates, with almost half of those in pretrial detention. The large number of noncitizen inmates prompted the authorities to address cultural problems in the prisons by allowing inmates to practice their religious beliefs, and providing meals that met the dietary requirements of different religions. An independent Central Control Council oversees the prisons.
During the year prison wardens staged several strikes to protest overcrowding and poor working conditions, and on a number of occasions inmates caused disturbances and damage while protesting their living conditions.
The government permitted visits to prisons and detention centers by members of parliament and independent human rights groups during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.
Role of the Police and Security Apparatus
The federal police were responsible for internal security and nationwide law and order. Local police operated branches in 196 police districts. An independent oversight committee (Committee P) monitored police activities and compiled an annual report for parliament. In its 2007 annual report, the federal police's own inspection service noted an increase in drug-related criminal acts committed by young police officers.
Committee P and the federal and local police combined received 6,244 complaints about police behavior in 2007. In the previous year, such complaints resulted in 779 disciplinary sanctions against police officers. The complaints concerned discriminatory behavior, brutality, racism, failure to intervene, violations of privacy, and arbitrary detention. The report noted that courts often showed leniency toward police officers appearing as defendants.
Arrest and Detention
Under the constitution, an individual can be arrested only while committing a crime or by a judge's order carried out within 24 hours. The law provides a person in detention the right to a prompt judicial determination of the legality of his or her detention, and the authorities generally respected this right. Detainees were promptly informed of charges against them. There is a functioning bail system. Between January and October, an estimated 9,600 incarcerated individuals qualified for alternative punishment (i.e., community service), and an additional 700 convicts were electronically monitored outside of prison premises.
The law provides rights to inmates regarding disciplinary matters, correspondence, telephone conversations, and religious practice. Brochures were handed out to inmates informing them about their rights. During the year newly established implementation courts became responsible for handling release issues, penitentiary leave, and electronic monitoring. In 2007 legislation came into force offering better protection to offenders with mental disorders, and the government implemented plans to treat more of these inmates outside of prisons. The legislation allows authorities to keep inmates imprisoned after completing their sentences if the court determines that their release might endanger the public.
According to 2007 figures, pretrial detainees made up 35 percent of the prison population. The average length of pretrial detention was 90 days.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence in practice.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. All defendants are presumed innocent and have the right to be present, to counsel (at public expense if necessary), to confront witnesses, to present evidence, and to appeal.
Judges of juvenile courts have a wide range of options for mediation and sentencing of young offenders. Young offenders committing serious crimes can be tried by a regular court for adults, but with youth judges present. Such offenders can be incarcerated in special youth detention centers until the age of 23.
The law authorizes jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity outside the national territory when the victim or perpetrator is a citizen or legal resident. On May 24, the police arrested Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo and a former Congolese vice president, following an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. He was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes and transferred to The Hague on July 3.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters. Plaintiffs can seek damages either individually or through specialized organizations for human rights violations under the applicable antidiscrimination legislation.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and legal code prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice. The Commission for the Protection of Private Life monitored privacy-related matters and issued advisory opinions to the relevant authorities.
2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press.
The law prohibits public statements that incite national, racial, or religious hatred, including denial of the Holocaust. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year's imprisonment. In June two individuals were each sentenced to one year's imprisonment and a fine of 24,789 euro (approximately $34,700), and were stripped of their civil and political rights for 10 years for having over a long period denied the Holocaust in brochures and leaflets.
Individuals could criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal, and the government made no attempts to impede criticism.
There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. In conjunction with the government, Child Focus, a government-sponsored center for missing and exploited children, developed programs to warn users of Web sites containing illegal content, especially child pornography.
Sixty percent of all households had connections to the Internet.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.
c. Freedom of Religion
The constitution and law provide for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right.
The law accorded "recognized" status to six religions and a grouping of nonconfessional philosophical or secular organizations, each of which received financial benefits from the federal and regional governments. The lack of recognized status did not prevent other religious groups from freely practicing their religions, and citizens generally practiced religion without official harassment or impediment.
Scientologists continued to experience a strained relationship with the government. In September 2007 the Federal Prosecuting Office released an official statement announcing that it had completed its investigation into the case against Church of Scientology members and affiliated nonprofit organizations and was forwarding the file to the Chamber of Indictment, the body responsible for determining if there is sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution. The investigation was examining alleged use of forged documents, embezzlement, and violations of privacy legislation. On April 25, the office announced that the Belgian branch of the church was the subject of a new judicial investigation. The branch was charged with recruiting volunteers under the false pretense of offering work contracts. Decisions in both cases were pending at year's end.
During the year the Buddhist secretariat began receiving subsidies as a "nonconfessional" philosophical community meriting state support.
In 2007 the Center for Information and Advice on Harmful and Sectarian Organizations (CIAOSN), an agency funded by the Justice Ministry that provides nonbinding advice to the public and public institutions, received several hundred requests for information about particular groups. The CIAOSN noted significant increases in visits to its Web site and in queries concerning physical welfare and therapeutic organizations.
On June 25, for the first time, a woman wearing a headscarf appeared as a witness in the country's highest court. (The judicial code stipulates that those attending a court session must be bareheaded.)
In July a Hasselt first instance court judge ruled that a school board had violated the religious freedom of four Sikh pupils when they were ordered to remove their turbans in school.
The police entered two Sikh temples October 18 as part of a trafficking-in-persons investigation and found 49 undocumented persons possibly being trafficked through the country to the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe. The United Sikh organization reacted by making vocal complaints in the press about the police force's alleged lack of respect for a Sikh ceremony during the raid.
Societal Abuses and Discrimination
The size of the Jewish community is estimated at 40,000-50,000. The Center for Equal Opportunity and the Fight Against Racism (CEOOR) counted 66 anti-Semitic incidents in 2007. During the year there was a noticeable increase in Internet hate messages. In addition, anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish homes and insults against Jews on the streets were reported.
The law prohibits public statements that incite national, racial, or religious hatred, including denial of the Holocaust (see section 2.a.).
Anti-Muslim incidents also occurred during the year, but no data were available on their extent.
For a more detailed discussion, see the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
The law prohibits forced exile, and the government did not employ it.
Protection of Refugees
The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government granted refugee status or asylum. In practice, the government provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened. In 2007 this protection was granted to 279 refugees, the larger part coming from Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. During 2007, 11,115 refugees applied for asylum, the smallest number since 2000. The Immigration Office registered 12,252 applications during the year; 28.3 percent of the vetted applications were accepted. Most accepted refugees came from Russia, Iraq, Guinea, Serbia, and Rwanda. During 2007 legislation came into force allowing the authorities to grant "subsidiary protection" to refugees not qualifying under the 1951 convention or the 1967 protocol who could establish that upon return to their home country they would face the death penalty, torture, or other inhuman treatment. These refugees are entitled to material aid and have access to the labor market. During the year 352 applicants – most of them from Iraq – qualified for subsidiary protection.
Regularization on the grounds of an unduly long application period, for urgent humanitarian reasons, or on medical grounds was granted to 11,335 applicants in 2007, including 555 minor and 4,326 adult applicants, through May of 2008. Because the Commissariat for Refugees and Stateless Persons shortened the verification process, applicants for refugee status mostly stayed in overcrowded specialized centers rather than opting for housing provided by local authorities. The national centers were managed by FEDASIL, a government agency, and had a total capacity of 15,800. In 2007 a new refugee relief act came into force, under which refugees who spent four months in a collective relief center qualified for independent living and were permitted to leave these collective centers. The new legislation also provides for social, medical, psychological, and legal assistance to refugees.
Recognized refugees could be gainfully employed. If the application was refused, the refugee could still be eligible for material aid.
Unaccompanied minor asylum seekers were assigned to designated specialized centers. Each individual applicant worked directly with a custodian whose task was to assist during the application process. School-age applicants were required to attend school.
Refused asylum seekers were informed in writing and in person of the repatriation scenarios they could choose from. The government, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), provided relocation assistance to unsuccessful asylum applicants who agreed to return voluntarily to their countries of origin. Unsuccessful applicants who did not leave voluntarily were subject to forced repatriation. In 2007, 8,745 refused asylum seekers were repatriated, including 2,592 under IOM auspices. This represented a sharp decline in numbers compared to 2006, due chiefly to the unwillingness of other countries to accept their return and to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) complained that living conditions at the closed centers for refused asylum seekers were substandard. By year's end the Immigration Ministry began implementing a decision to provide individual housing to refused families with children.
During the year scores of asylum seekers who stayed in the country illegally after their applications were refused took refuge in churches, went on hunger strikes, and climbed tower cranes to draw public attention to their situation. The immigration minister made several statements during the year that all asylum seekers could apply to regularize their status on humanitarian or medical grounds.
3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens ages 18 and older exercised this right through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. Voting in all elections is compulsory. Failure to vote is punishable by a nominal fine.
Elections and Political Participation
General elections were held in June 2007; they were considered free and fair. Political parties could operate without restriction or outside interference.
The constitution requires the presence of men and women, and the law requires an equal number of male and female candidates on party tickets, in European, federal, regional, provincial, and local elections. Failure to meet the requirement would nullify the elections and render any government created thereby illegal.
In May a fact-finding group of Council of Europe experts visited the country and interviewed the authorities regarding the case of three Francophone mayors of Flemish Brussels suburbs whose nominations were denied by the regional Flemish interior minister on the grounds that they had violated the prevailing language legislation during the 2006 municipal election campaign. Local Francophone politicians argued that the language laws in these municipalities violated the constitutionally protected free use of languages.
There were 56 women in the 150-seat Chamber of Representatives and 29 women in the 71-seat Senate; six of the outgoing 22 federal cabinet ministers and state secretaries were women, and 11 of the 33 regional ministers were female.
There were five members of minorities in the Chamber of Representatives, three in the Senate, and two minority regional ministers.
Government Corruption and Transparency
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively. Corruption was not a serious problem according to the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators. Elected officials and high-level civil servants are required to disclose any regular private employment or public jobs they hold and to provide confidential disclosure of their financial situation.
In June the Charleroi police commander was forced to resign over corruption charges. During 2007, 12 civil servants and 25 private contractors were indicted on active and passive corruption charges in connection with public building contracts, resulting in the appointment of new leadership of the Federal Buildings Department.
With some exceptions, such as material involving national security, the government provided unrestricted access to government information.
4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to their views.
5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, and the government generally enforced these laws; however, violence against women, child abuse, trafficking in persons, and discrimination against minorities were problems.
In 2007 three acts of parliament came into force replacing earlier antiracism and antidiscrimination legislation and bringing the country's legislation in line with prevailing European Union directives. One of the laws identified 18 grounds of possible discrimination subject to legal penalty: age, sexual orientation, civil status, birth, financial situation, religious belief, philosophical orientation, physical condition, disability, physical characteristics, genetic characteristics, social status, nationality, race, color of skin, descent, national origin, and ethnic origin. A separate law updated the 1999 gender discrimination in the workplace act.
Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, and the government prosecuted such cases. In 2007 the federal police registered 2,933 rape cases, compared to 3,045 the previous year. A convicted rapist can be imprisoned for a minimum of 10 years to a maximum of life. The length of sentence is based on the age of the victim, the age difference between the offender and the victim, the relationship between the offender and victim, and the use or absence of violence during the commission of the crime.
Domestic violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a problem. Reportedly, one in five women had at some time been subjected to domestic violence. In 2007 the federal police reported 16,254 cases of violence between spouses, compared to 15,466 the previous year. Police registered 26,404 acts of violence within the larger family framework. The law defines and criminalizes domestic violence and provides for fines and incarceration. The law allows police to enter a home without the consent of the head of household when investigating a domestic violence complaint; however, there were complaints that the police frequently declined to do this.
An action plan for dealing with domestic violence was in force, and the regional governments formally joined the effort. Police forces and prosecuting magistrates registered all complaints and official actions taken in connection with domestic violence.
A number of government-supported shelters and telephone help lines were available across the country for victims of domestic abuse. In addition to providing shelter, many offered assistance on legal matters, job placement, and psychological counseling to both partners.
The Institute for the Equality of Men and Women announced that it would claim damages in the case of a Pakistani woman slain in an honor killing resulting from a failed arranged marriage.
Prostitution is legal; however, the law prohibits organizing prostitution or assisting immigration for the purpose of prostitution. There were reports that women and girls were trafficked to the country for the purpose of prostitution, and there were a number of arrests and convictions on related charges.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, pregnancy, motherhood, or sex change. It also prohibits sexual intimidation in labor relations and in access to goods, services, social welfare, and health care. Separate legislation prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, and the government generally enforced it. A victim of sexual harassment in the workplace can claim damages in a court of justice. Victims of sexual harassment have the right to sue their harassers and seek financial remedies, but most cases of sexual harassment were resolved less formally.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, including rights under family law, property law, in the judicial system, in labor relations, and in social welfare protection. The federal government's Institute for the Equality of Men and Women, which is tasked with promoting gender equality, is authorized to initiate lawsuits if it finds that equality laws have been violated.
During the year the government started implementing the gender mainstreaming act of 2007. The law obliges the authorities to address gender aspects in planning policy, collecting data, drafting budgets, awarding contracts, and drafting reports.
Economic discrimination against women continued. A survey conducted by several ministerial departments during the year showed that in the public sector the average annual salary for women was 90 percent of that for men for contracted employees; salaries were equal among statutory civil servants. In the private sector, women earned 70 percent of the average male salary among white-collar workers and 79 percent in the blue-collar work force. Discrimination was greatest among older workers and in higher wage categories. Because relatively higher percentages of women were in part-time jobs and in lower wage categories, the actual male-female wage gap was even higher.
Through legislation and decrees, federal and regional authorities sought to increase the presence of women on the boards of public enterprises and government agencies. Data from the European Professional Women's Network indicated that women filled only 5.8 percent of the positions on boards of directors of the country's leading private companies.
The government was committed to children's rights and welfare. During the year parliament amended the constitution, giving children the right to voice an opinion in matters of concern to them and to the necessary measures and services for their personal development. The amendment brought the country's fundamental charter into conformity with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
There were reports of child abuse. In 2007 the federal police registered 1,996 cases of child abandonment and abuse, compared with 2,145 in the previous year.
The law provides for the protection of youth against sexual exploitation, abduction, and trafficking, and calls for severe penalties for child pornography and possession of pedophilic materials. The law permits the prosecution of residents who commit such crimes abroad and provides that criminals convicted of the sexual abuse of children must receive specialized treatment before they can be paroled and must continue counseling and treatment after their release from prison. In 2007 the NGO Child Focus handled 247 sexual abuse cases and continued its Internet-based public awareness campaign called "stopchildporno.be". It received 2,790 reports of child pornography on the Internet and forwarded relevant cases to the specialized units of the federal police.
According to official figures, in 2007 the federal police investigated 375 child pornography cases, and international networks operating in several countries were dismantled with the help of Europol and Eurojust. In several Belgian court cases judges handed down prison sentences for downloading child pornography.
Child Focus reported that it handled 3,555 missing children cases involving 3,739 children in 2007. There were 1,255 cases of runaways; half of the runaways returned home within 48 hours. The center handled 36 cases of abduction by a third person. Also that year, Child Focus handled 451 cases of abduction by parents, involving 623 children; 232 of the cases (331 children) involved children abducted to another country.
During the year Child Focus, in conjunction with the King Baudouin Foundation, produced the first comprehensive study to document the growing number of children contacted via cellular telephone and Internet for sexual purposes and children responding to such requests.
Following a critical report from a European Parliament Commission, the government announced that unaccompanied minors stopped at the border were no longer being held in closed centers, but in specialized observation and orientation centers. Minors held with their parents had access to individualized education.
Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits all forms of trafficking in persons; however, Belgium is a transit country for men, women, and girls trafficked for the purpose of economic and sexual exploitation. According to the CEOOR and domestic NGOs that worked with trafficking victims, women and girls were trafficked primarily from Nigeria, Russia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and the People's Republic of China. Some were trafficked through the country to other European countries such as the United Kingdom. Male victims were trafficked to the country for labor exploitation in restaurants, bars, sweatshops, and construction sites.
The law criminalizes recruiting, transporting, transiting, sheltering, and passing to others the control over persons for the purpose of prostitution, child pornography, exploitation of poverty, economic exploitation, or organ transplant. The law also makes it illegal to force trafficked persons to commit crimes. Persons convicted of violating the antitrafficking law are subject to one to five years' imprisonment and may be fined between 2,750 and 275,000 euro (approximately $3,850 to $385,000). Repeat offenses, offenses of an organized nature, and those with aggravated circumstances are subject to higher penalties. If the offender belongs to a criminal organization or if the trafficking results in manslaughter, the punishment is 15 to 20 years' imprisonment and fines ranging from 5,500 to 825,000 euro ($7,700 to $1,155,000).
The country's antitrafficking policy is implemented by the Interdepartmental Coordination Unit to Combat Human Trafficking and Smuggling, chaired by the justice minister. Its executive board is composed of representatives from the Criminal Policy Department of the Justice Ministry, the CEOOR, the Immigration Office, the federal police, and the State Security and Social Welfare and Employment ministries.
In 2007 prosecutors handled 418 trafficking cases, including 219 economic exploitation and 168 sexual exploitation cases. The federal judicial police handled 196 trafficking files, compared with 184 in 2006. In 2007 the police arrested 342 persons for smuggling and trafficking-related crimes.
The country's legislation is in line with prevailing European Union directives, particularly on awarding residence to trafficking victims who cooperate with the authorities. The prevailing protection system has the force of law and extends to unaccompanied minors and other categories of vulnerable victims.
During the year the government launched a new action plan for combating trafficking and smuggling. The plan aims at improving data sharing among law enforcement agencies, more effectively combating child pornography, and tracking persons who exploit trafficking victims.
Victims have 45 days to decide whether to assist in the investigation of their traffickers and can qualify for a renewable three-month residency permit or a six-month permit, depending on the status of the judicial investigation. Victims can eventually obtain permanent residence when their traffickers are sentenced. Unaccompanied minors and victims willing to file a complaint can skip the 45-day period and immediately apply for a three-month residency permit.
The government continued to subsidize three specialized shelters providing assistance to victims of trafficking, and NGOs continued to report excellent cooperation and coordination with law enforcement agencies. The shelters registered 619 victims in 2007. The three centers noted a significant increase in the number of victims of economic exploitation.
See also the State Department's 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Persons with Disabilities
The law provides for the protection of persons with physical and mental disabilities from discrimination in employment, education, access to health care, and other state services. The CEOOR reported that 30 percent of all complaints concerned discrimination against persons with disabilities. Most of them concerned housing, public transport, public utilities, and access to banks, bars, and restaurants. While the government has mandated that public buildings erected after 1970 must be accessible to such persons, many older buildings were still inaccessible.
Immigrant communities complained of discrimination. Members of the Muslim community, estimated at 450,000 and principally of Moroccan and Turkish origin, claimed that discrimination against their community, notably in education and employment – and particularly against young men – exceeded that experienced by other immigrant communities. In 2007 the CEOOR, which investigates complaints of discrimination, racism, and hate instigation, handled 2,917 discrimination and racism complaints, a 77 percent increase from the previous year – partially due to greater public awareness of the CEOOR complaint mechanism. Most complaints concerned race and physical handicaps; in contrast with previous years, there was a 12.5 percent increase in complaints about discrimination on religious and philosophical orientation grounds. The CEOOR also noted a significant increase in complaints about racism in the media, in propaganda material, and on the Internet in blogs and e-mails.
Unlike in the previous year, there were no further ethnic clashes between immigrant groups living in Brussels.
The CEOOR also noted discrimination regarding employment, housing, and restaurant access, and an increase of racism on the Internet and in e-mail.
Two percent of all registered complaints resulted in litigation initiated by the CEOOR. Courts convicted a number of defendants for inciting racial hatred, shouting abuse, denying the Holocaust, and using violence against asylum seekers. Judges convicted employers for discriminating on racial and physical grounds in hiring personnel. Landlords were convicted for discriminating against foreigners and persons with disabilities.
Data released by the Justice Ministry showed that only 2 to 5 percent of all racism and discrimination cases handled by the first instance courts in 2007 resulted in indictments or court rulings.
Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination
Five percent of the complaints registered by the CEOOR concerned discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In its annual report for 2007, the CEOOR noted an increase in discrimination based on health or medical conditions – including against persons with HIV/AIDS, philosophical orientation (a Belgian legal concept referring to religious, spiritual, and philosophical belief or lack thereof), and age.
On July 10, the European Court of Justice ruled that a manufacturer of automatic garage doors had discriminated when he refused to hire a Moroccan applicant under the pretext that his clients would object to having a Moroccan worker in their homes. The case was referred to a labor court for sentencing under the antidiscrimination law.
6. Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The law provides workers the right to form and join independent unions of their choice, and workers exercised this right in practice. Approximately 58 percent of employed workers were members of labor unions. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, and the government protected this right in practice. The law provides for the right to strike, and workers exercised this right.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The right to bargain collectively is recognized, and the government protected this right. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination.
There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children; however, there were reports that such practices occurred. The police and courts used antitrafficking legislation to combat economic exploitation.
d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law and policies generally protect children from exploitation in the workplace. The minimum age of employment is 15. Youths between the ages of 15 and 18 can participate in part-time work and study programs and work full-time during school vacations. The Ministry of Employment regulates industries that employ younger workers to ensure that labor laws are followed.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The monthly national minimum wage for workers 21 years of age was 1,387.5 euro (approximately $1,940) and increased to 1,440.7 euro (approximately $2,000) for workers 22 years of age with one year of service. When combined with extensive social benefits, this provided a decent standard of living for a worker and family.
The standard workday is eight hours, and the standard workweek is 38 hours. Departure from these norms can occur under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, but work time may not exceed 11 hours per day and 50 hours per week. An 11-hour rest period is required between two work periods. Overtime is paid at a time-and-a-half premium Monday through Saturday and at double time on Sundays. The Ministry of Labor and the labor courts effectively enforced these laws and regulations.
Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their safety or health without jeopardy to their continued employment, and workers exercised this right in practice. In general, regulations were enforced effectively by the Employment and Labor Relations Federal Public Service.