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Court ruling on working conditions set to shake up tour guide sector

Illustration picture shows tourists at the Grand Place - Grote Markt square in the city center of Brussels, Wednesday 22 August 2018. BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND
09:48 29/09/2021

In what could be a watershed moment for the free sightseeing sector, the French-speaking labour court in Brussels has ruled that the working conditions imposed on an independent tour guide who used to work for the Buendia Tours company were in fact those expected of a salaried worker.

Many free tour companies such as Buendia Tours, which is based in Brussels city centre and specialises in activities for Spanish-speaking tourists, use independent tour guides. An investigation based on a survey of independent tour guides in Belgium, which was conducted by Le Soir newspaper in 2019, revealed that some companies impose very strict working conditions on their employees, conditions which are more in line with those for salaried workers rather than those for freelancers.

The ruling confirmed the fact that the employment relationship between the former guide and Buendia Tours should indeed be regarded as one between an employer and a salaried worker.

After analysing the case, the court ruled that the company "exerted pressure" on the self-employed worker to perform services which did not allow her to freely organise her working schedule. The former guide also mentioned in her argument that she and other guides had been threatened with financial sanctions should she arrive late at the meeting places or if any equipment necessary for carrying out the tour was lacking.

The case had already been heard by the Administrative Commission for the Settlement of the Employment Relationship at the end of 2018. The Commission also concluded at the time that the relationship between the former tour guide and the company should be a matter of salaried employment and not of self-employment, due to the existence of a manifest hierarchical relationship between the company and the provider, as well as an impossibility, on the part of the guide, to organise her working time freely.

Buendia Tours challenged that decision which led to the case being heard by the labour court. The company’s request for the decision to be reversed was rejected and Buendia Tours was ordered to pay its former guide a symbolic compensation of €1, but also to pay €1,283 in arrears of social contributions on her behalf.

The decision could have implications for many other companies and their independent guides in the free tour sector, which has experienced a boom in Brussels and other European cities over the last decade.

Written by Nick Amies