Belgian Member of Parliament Hans Verreyt [of the nationalistic Vlaams Belang party] was quoted saying, “The inactivity rate among non-EU foreigners is 44.2 percent and among women it is even 59.3 percent,” in his party’s official article. These figures are correct. However, Verreyt carries on: “Anyone who continues to argue that migration is necessary to provide our labor market with workers is blind.” This is a misleading statement that is rejected by multiple labor market experts, so we assess the claim as mostly false.
The men behind the claim
Hans Verreyt is a member of the Vlaams Belang (previously Vlaams Blok) political party in Belgium. This right wing party is nationalistic, calling for stricter immigration laws and a shift in policy to prioritize the Flemish population, according to the party’s official website. “The party stands up for the preservation of cultural individuality and for the identity of its own people and therefore against multicultural ideas,” the website’s “Statement of Principle” section reads. As a figurehead of the party, Verreyt defends and embodies these ideas. Verreyt was part of nationalistic youth and student organizations until he began working for Vlaams Belang as a parliamentary assistant, according to his Wikipedia page. In 2019, he was elected to the Belgian Chamber of Representatives as a Member of Parliament for the Antwerp electoral district.
Louis Lippens and Stijn Baert are the authors of the inactivity report used by Verreyt. Lippens is currently a PhD researcher at Gent University and Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, focusing on labor economics and sociology of labor. His current research surrounds hiring discrimination and he has extensive experience in labor management, according to his LinkedIn profile. Baert is also currently a PhD researcher and professor at Gent University. Baert’s research is focused on labor economics and he has received a lot of recognition for his research, according to his professional profile on Gent University’s website. Both men hold doctoral degrees in labor economics.
Analysis of the inactivity report
According to doctors Lippens and Baert, they conducted this study in an attempt to respond to the Belgian government’s desire to increase the employment rate through policy changes. The paper breaks down Belgium’s labor force into three categories of workers: employed, unemployed, and inactive. In order to increase the employment rate, they concluded that the country needs to activate the inactives (unemployed who aren’t actively looking for work) because they form a much larger subgroup than the unemployed.
The report lists that the data they used is from Eurostat, the official statistical office of Europe. It is a heavily relied on resource and is trusted by European countries and researchers. These authors do not have any biases that we could find that would affect the outcome of their research paper.
The trend behind Verreyt’s claim
In our research, we found ample data that supports Verreyt’s first claim. A large number of non-EU foreigners in Belgium are inactive. Data and figures from StatBel, the official statistical database for Belgium, supported the inactivity report and subsequently, Verreyt’s first claim. However, we talked to multiple experts in immigration and employment that refuted his second claim.
Lippens, Baert, and several other economists published a follow-up research paper. This paper clarified many questions and data points about inactives in Belgium. Lippens said that the total number of non-EU inactives only make up 9.4% of the total inactives in Belgium. There are 1,086,800 inactive Belgians and 123,000 inactive non-EU foreigners. He noted the problem is not solely a problem regarding non-EU immigrants as Verreyt leads people to believe, it is a problem Belgium is facing as a whole.
Jeroen Franssen, a labor market expert working for Agoria, stressed that right now there is a surplus of jobs but a lack of people looking for employment. Data from Trading Economics, a website providing data for economic indicators in 196 countries, along with Lippens and Baert’s research supports Franssen’s claims. Job vacancies in Belgium are at an all-time high now with 196,140 jobs available as of April 2022. By 2030, Belgium aspires to have an 80% employment rate. However, there will be a predicted 5.4 million jobs available but only 5.1 million people looking for work. Belgium will either need to activate inactive people or use resources outside Belgium. Franssen thus concluded that immigrants are necessary for the Belgian labor market to work, stating immigrants will be 10-15% of the solution, contrary to what Verreyt stated.
Understanding why immigrants are inactive
To understand what’s meant by “inactives,” Franssen listed two main categories: those who have enough comfort to not need to work anymore, and those who don’t have the comfort to even think about getting a job. The second category could consist of someone who has a long-term illness, who needs to take care of their family, or who needs to finish their education.
Fons Leroy, labor market expert and policy maker, and Franssen both stressed that non-EU immigrants face many obstacles due to their different cultural backgrounds. Many immigrant women prioritize their family so they are “active”– just not on the formal labor market. Each source we talked to noted a persistent negative mindset that some Belgian employers have toward people of a foreign background. This, combined with the fact that some employers don’t recognize other educations, makes it harder for immigrants to become active in the workforce. This shows that there is a logical reason why these immigrants are inactive, differing from what Verreyt is leading people to believe.
Leroy commented that many available jobs have a low quality of work. In that case, people with a different skill set or those without a full education (42.6% of non-EU foreigners don’t have a secondary school degree according to Lippens and Baert’s follow-up report) are needed to replace those who wouldn’t take those jobs. He went on to say that Belgium should stimulate upward mobility in the workplace by ensuring that every talent has the opportunity to have success and those with lower skills are able to evolve. By becoming more inclusive and flexible for everyone, the Belgian labor market will be able to function at its highest potential, Leroy explained.
When quoting numbers, Verreyt is correct. We found three recent and reliable studies that provide figures supporting the numbers in the claim. However, Verreyt uses the data in a misleading way. When assessing why he would misinterpret the data, one key factor to keep in mind is that he is a well-known representative of a political party with certain anti-immigration values. Three prominent experts in the Belgian labor market contested his last sentence “Anyone who continues to argue that migration is necessary to provide our labor market with workers is blind“ and provided information as to why he is incorrect. Therefore, we assess his claim as mostly false.
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