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Employment contracts only in Dutch?
Many multinational companies have got used to the strange rules we have in Belgium that dictate which language they must use for their employment contracts. When an American company welcomes an employee seconded from the States, it cannot assume it can present her with a local contract in English.

Any company with premises in Flanders must exclusively use Dutch for its working documents: that is the case for employment contracts, for work regulations and conditions and for all communications between management and staff.

The rule was introduced 40 years ago by the Flemish Language Decree to ensure that Flemish or Dutch is used as the vehicular language in business. Any document that is not drafted in Dutch, is null and void, without prejudice to the rights of the employee or of any third parties. The employment contract is deemed to be a verbal agreement and that is not worth the paper it is written on.

That was the problem faced by Singapore container terminal operator PSA; it had proposed a contract in English to its Dutch CFO. When the latter was made redundant with a letter of notice (in English), the now former CFO collected his indemnity in lieu of notice, but subsequently claimed a higher indemnity because the employment contract was null and void.

The case ended up before the European Court of Justice (Case C‑202/11 Anton Las v. PSA Antwerp NV). The court decided that this rule is likely to affect the free movement of workers since it may dissuade employees from other EU Member States. The Court acknowledges the validity of the objectives of the Language Decree, but notes that, in a cross border situation, a rule that allows an authentic version in another language known to all parties concerned, besides the version in the regional language, would be less "intrusive" to the freedom of movement of workers and would also achieve the goal of the regional regulations.

The rule also exists in Wallonia  where, contrary to the situation in Flanders, other language version of the contract are allowed, but not in Brussels.

The legislators in Flanders and Wallonia will have to review the legislation ; they do not have to adapt their rules for Belgian employees or for employees from outside the EU, but it is likely that they will be able to claim equal treatment. While we are waiting for new legislation, it would be advisable to continue to draft the documents in Dutch of French, and to sign a document in another language - for nationals of EU Member States - if they prefer.

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