This article is about the origin of paid leave in Belgium. This is the third item in our series 'History of a bank'.
In previous articles we focused on the evolution of the role of women in the workplace and the building of a strategic railway line in China at the beginning of the 20th century. Each article is illustrated by invaluable photos of the time.
The history books tell us that in Belgium, paid leave was ‘invented’ in 1936 by the Van Zeeland government, following on from similar provisions adopted by the Front Populaire in France shortly before. And yet the archives of the Société Générale de Belgique / Generale Maatschappij van België (founded in 1822) which preceded the former Generale Bank, and the former ASLK-CGER (established in 1865) show that their employees benefited from annual leave much earlier than this, opening up the way to a social benefit that has since become ‘universal’. (*)
In the 19th century, the first employees to benefit from two weeks’ paid leave were civil servants – that was in around 1860. And in the years that followed, a number of private bodies started imitating this example. At the Société Générale de Belgique / Generale Maatschappij van België, for instance, there is evidence of this practice from as early as 1879 at least. The holidays granted – six days for cashiers and office boys and 15 days for employees as of the grade of clerk – were compulsory. They were usually taken in the summer, in a single block, but there is also a reference to leave granted in April... upon the employee’s marriage. Depending on the needs of the department, annual leave could be cancelled: in 1886, a loan conversion proved so successful that a good many employees were unable to go on holiday because they had to take care of the investment!
At ASLK-CGER, there was no paid leave in the 19th century. Quite simply, the offices closed on certain holidays or the day after holidays: on the King’s birthday and on St Leopold’s Day, the day after carnival and Christmas, the day of the Longchamp-Fleuri motorcade, etc.
Revolution came in 1906: every employee was granted between eight and 16 days’ ‘annual rest’, without the deduction of salary, depending on their grade: eight days for ‘filing staff’, 12 days for ‘executive clerks’, 15 for clerks… and 16 for office heads. Sundays and holidays that fell during the period of leave were not counted. However, days taken off sick were counted as an ordinary half-day’s leave! This system was revised in 1919, in the climate of social unrest that characterised the period after the Great War. Whatever their grade, employees now had 15 days’ annual leave and sick leave was no longer deducted…
The extension of the paid leave system to include all Belgian workers, regardless of their status, came in 1936. The law was changed to make paid leave a right and no longer a privilege…
(*) Generale Bank and ASLK-CGER merged in 1999 to become Fortis Bank, now BNP Paribas Fortis.