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Belgium’s law of unintended consequences

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You should never underestimate the ability of a comics industry to find itself between a rock and a hard place, and the comics of Belgium (which gave birth to one of the most popular comics characters ever, Tintin) are no exception. Italian comics newssite Fumetti.org (Google translation) alerts us to a weird one — the Belgian government, trying to improve the lot of artists, may have just regulated their comics industry out of business. On July 5th of last year, Belgium’s Council of Ministers took up a bill (Dutch-language[?] PDF file) that would require all artists (including cartoonists) who work for a single editor to be considered an employee for the purpose of benefits and social security obligations. On December 23rd the bill was passed; it becomes law in July. The idea comes loaded with good intentions, so naturally it paves a road to Hell.

The biggest problem is the enormous cultural interchange between Belgium and other comics-reading European nations, such as France. Because Belgium’s judicial code only affects its own citizens, the new law wouldn’t apply to cartoonists working outside the country. Perversely, the law could be applied so that Belgian artists who work for French publishers would have to pay both the employer’s and the employee’s portion of the social security payments — and given Belgium’s welfare state, this could add up to a pretty penny indeed. La Maison des Auteurs de BD explains the predicament in detail (note that this is from the Google translation, so be warned of the torturous language ahead):

“If the author is published in a Belgian editor, this last will be constrained to follow the Law. On all the amounts paid with the authors, it will have on the one hand to retain approximately 15% by way of personal contribution of the worker to the social security contribution, and it will have moreover to pay an amount of 35% approximately with its social case. Let us take a price with the board of 300 euros (12.102 BFRS). On these 300 euros, the author would not receive any more that 255 euros, and the editor should pay with his social case 105 euros. A paid board 300 euros (12.102 [Belgian francs]) will thus be allocated to the editor to 405 euros (16.338 BFRS), and the author will have out of pocket only 255 euros (10.287 francs).

“As much to say that separately the large salesmen (and those are undoubtedly already for the majority in company), plus any Belgian editor will not wish to work with Belgian authors. Indeed, the residents authors apart from Belgium will not be considered as person employed. The Belgian State thus will found a kind of unfair economic competition between the residents authors in Belgium and the residents authors the Abroad….

“On the second assumption, the author is published by a foreign editor. This editor is obviously not held by the Belgian Law. Unfortunately, the European payment 1408/71 relating to the application of the social security systems to the paid workers, the self-employed persons and the members of their family who move inside the precise Community that the worker residing in a country, even if it works for a foreign company, is subjected to the social right of the country in question. On this assumption, not only the author will have to take itself his 15% of personal contribution, but it could be, moreover, that its social case requires of him to pay itself the employer’s share of 35%, substituent thus with its “employer”. The author should thus pay approximately 50% of his royalties. On a price with the board of 300 euros always (12.102 BFRS), it would thus keep nothing any more but 150 euros (6.051 BFRS).

“And let us note well that all this relates to ONLY the social security contributions.”

There’s another wrinkle as well: artists who work for more than one company are exempt from the law, which is causing many to worry that this will serve as an incentive for Belgian publishers not to hire local writers and cartoonists unless they have more than one client. The end result could be both an exodus of talent out of Belgium and a sudden spike in the number of foreign cartoonists taking Belgian cartoonists’ jobs. Those that do stay will find themselves under pressure to work on titles for multiple publishers in order to keep the jobs coming. This probably isn’t what the Belgian government had in mind….

(Incidentally, howdy. My name’s Dirk Deppey, and I’m webmaster for The Comics Journal, a magazine of comics news and criticism. I also run the Journal‘s official weblog, ¡Journalista!, which covers the comics industry both here and abroad on a daily basis. I do intend to write more review-oriented pieces for Blogcritics, but since Eric was kind enough to let me join this fine collective, I figured I ought to post something before my beard grew much longer.)

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  • Eric Olsen

    Excellent Dirk – thanks and welcome!