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Monday, 13 April 2015

In the “Utopian” (or is it dystopian) world of completely flexible labour in The Netherlands, the worker seems to slowly become an outlaw

It has always been the biggest dream of hardline economists, captains of industry and many Captain Entrepreneur's: a totally flexible labour market, which fully breathes and moves with the pace of the economy. And this labour market would be populated by moderately remunerated, replaceable and interchangeable workers – also known as FTE’s, in the entrepreneurs lexicon – who always effortlessly give their full 100% during their working days.

Extra hours? Working during the weekend? 

No problem, you got it, sir! And sir, you pay me so much money for my normal working hours, that I just don’t want to receive the payment for all the extra hours I make for you. I know I am already expensive enough for you, so I will gladly save your company the extra buck”.

And when the economy would decline, those loyal and flexible workers would vanish into thin air, like they never existed, only to return in full force and shape when the economy would start to grow again. 

Glad to be back, sir. How can I be of service?”

While many executives and self-acclaimed leaders at large employers praise themselves for their exceptional qualities and skills, and use this as an excuse for their exceptionally high remuneration, they don’t really search for exceptional qualities among their personnel.

The ideal workers are people, whose knowledge and skills would always be fully up to date. They would not be overly ambitious and would never become bored of their jobs, even when their jobs would be boring, as a matter of fact.

They would be fully skilled and trained at any given moment, and in possession of the latest knowledge and techniques, regarding all important working areas and technical developments. And companies would not have to invest one penny in them, with respect to courses, workshops and trainings! 

These workers would only require a moderate salary or hourly fee and when their services would not be required anymore, they would leave the company instantaneously.

Hence: the ideal worker does not require anything special, does not ask for anything and gives his very best on a daily basis, until his services have become superficial. 

And an optimal labour market – to the eyes of many entrepreneurs – would be akin to the physical Law of Communicating Vessels: a labour force, which is so flexible that it always appears at the place and time where and when it is needed most. High demand for labour would immediately lead to high supply. Low demand would immediately lead to a magical disappearance of the labour supply…

Unfortunately, for the hardliner economists and captains of industry, that flexible labour market situation is not there (yet, although they seem to be working on it): workers are not interchangeable and/or easily replacable, like “cold”, emotionless and standardized FTE’s. 

Workers vary quite much in knowledge, skills, quality and stamina, when measured in levels between moderate (or poor) to excellent, yet anybody seems to have his own particular skill set and unique habits, which makes him / her very (un)suitable for particular kinds of jobs. 

Most workers operate somewhere on the scale between 'sufficient' and 'very good' for their general activities; a few are quite poor and a few are excellent. Still, the quality and production of their labour varies quite much per day and can hardly be standardized or caught in measurement instruments, like Key Performance Indicators.

Very good workers can (temporarily) become much less effective workers, due to unforeseen circumstances – although the opposite also happens quite often – and poor workers are often quite hard to dismiss. To make things worse, most workers often fail in transferring their gathered knowledge to their peers or successors, which makes it very hard to replace them by another FTE.

Most workers are not focused all day, tend to have off days (physically or mentally), want to have holidays at the busiest times of the year and ask for overtime money, while working extra hours, or even dare to refuse the latter, “because of the great project leader at home”.  

It takes them time to gather new knowledge and skills, they need expensive trainings and workshops, and always leave you or stay in your company at exactly the wrong time.

And last, but not least: they want to get respect, understanding, attention and a little bit of compassion from their employers. And a decent salary plus a decent overtime arrangement, as well as sufficient growth opportunities and non-repetitive work, in order to keep their job interesting. Most of all, they want to be treated as sensitive human beings, with genuine feelings and emotions.

However, when employers do give them those "intangible assets" indeed, most of their personnel will show tons of loyalty and commitment to their employers.

They will put more energy, commitment and efforts into their work and will do almost anything for their employers on a daily basis. And when the going gets tough for the company in question, the personnel will often indeed take a step back with their remuneration or work a little bit harder, in order to save the company. And when dismissals prove to be unavoidable eventually, they will be met with understanding and a feeling of shared burden and grief.

Unfortunately, in these times of efficiency and effectivity, as well as fierce competition and economic hardship for many companies, it is very hard for companies to show their personnel the respect and commitment that they desire.

Many companies are nowadays populated with an increasingly flexible workforce, in which temporary contracts and call up contracts form an ever larger slice of the employment pie. People are indeed more and more seen as FTE’s and "hands" which need to do a job, for as long as they are needed. And the cheaper those hands can be supplied, the better it is for the company.

In a sense, one could justifiably speak of the dehumanization of the labour force, in a increaslingly dystopian world:

Workers with fixed contracts from The Netherlands are often replaced with cheaper workers from the East-European low wage countries, or by knowledge workers from the Far East, as companies and government bodies are still “forced” to diminish their labour expenses and labour risks, in order to remain profitable.

More and more high-tech projects at companies and government institutions are executed by ICT companies, (sub)contractors or hired professionals, in order to reduce the risks and keep the labour expenses under control. When the contract is finished, those workers can be easily dismissed, without much hassle. On a monthly base and when necessary, even at a few day’s notice. Not only the principals make use of hired professionals, but also the ICT companies or the (sub)contractors and commercial services companies themselves.

And when Dutch or foreign, temporary workers – workers who don't have a fixed contract at ICT companies, (sub)contracting companies or commercial services companies – are hired for a longer period of time, they might be hired for as long as their temporary employers are allowed to supply them with temporary contracts.

After a few subsequent, temporary contracts and a period of a few years – at the exact time when employers would be obliged to supply their temporary personnel with a fixed contract – the temporary worker is dismissed: for a certain period of time or even foregood, even though his qualities and skills as a worker had not at all been in doubt.

Only in a steadily declining number of cases, such temporary workers receive their fixed assignment after all, as their long-term temporary employers simply don’t want to carry the economic and social risks of steadily employing such workers and rather stick to temp workers.

Lodewijk Asscher, the Dutch minister of Social Affairs and Employment, had strong worries about this subject and wanted to change this undesired behaviour, through the introduction of new legislation per July 2015 (the following excerpt of this new law has been acquired from De Volkskrant):

Per 1 July 2015, the difference between fixed and so-called flex workers becomes smaller. This is agreed by employers and labour unions in the so-called Social Agreement. It will become cheaper to dismiss fixed employees and the duration of the Dutch unemployment benefit (i.e. WW) will be restricted.

On the other hand, starting from July 2015 flex workers will be entitled to a ‘transition payment’, when they have worked in excess of two years for the same employer. This payment is at least one-third of a monthly salary per service year at the employer, capped at €75,000.

At the same time, these flex workers are entitled to a fixed contract earlier: after three contracts in two years (was three contracts in three years). In order to protect employees against ‘revolving door’ constructions – the employee goes away and magically reappears after a few months for a new series of temp contracts – the employee from now on is only allowed to return to the same company after six months, instead of three.

For the 230,000 temporary employees (acquired through an official temporary employment agency), things remain more flexible: six contracts in four years. The first one-and-a-half years, the temporary employee can be sent away at one day’s notice.  

In my opionion, Asscher is a man with compassion for workers and a genuine social heart, who is undoubtedly the strongest minister of this further quite bleak cabinet of “teflon” Prime Minister Mark Rutte, even though he made a few skids during the last few years.

However, it seems that this legislation, which had been founded with the best intentions, has exactly the opposite effect of what was originally desired: the so-called unintended consequences.

The following snippets were also printed in De Volkskrant (see the aforementioned link):

Companies ditch temporary employees

Companies try to avoid the new legislation for dismissal and temporary contracts, effective per July 1, by preliminary dismissing their temporary employees. They ditch loyal temporaries, in order to prevent from the mandatory payment of the so-called legal transition fee for these temporary workers.

This wave of dismissals has hit at least a few hundred temporary workers and probably many more. This phenomenon has been observed by a number of temporary employment agencies, as well as temp workers. In many cases, this has been reported on a basis of anonimity, as people and agencies are afraid for countermeasures from the principals involved.

According to Henny Stroek of the federation of labour unions ‘CNV’, people who work in the agricultural industry and the foodstuffs industry lose their jobs ‘by the dozen’.

Temporary employment agencies want to incorporate the transition fees in their future fees, but many employers simply don’t want to foot the bill of €1,000 per year, per temporary employer, at an average salary. They have stated that they want to abolish their temporary workers, according to the NBBU, the umbrella organization for employment agencies.

This is very painful for the many temporary workers, who are often just as loyal to their temporary employers, as their colleagues with a fixed contract. Where they expected some loyalty and respect from their employers, for whom they did they many hours of hard labour, they are now ‘punished’ for new legislation, which had been established with the best intentions. 

In my opinion, such measures by Dutch companies are the effect of the increasing void between the interests of employers and employees, in these economic tough times. Companies play for keeps – even when they are fully profitable – and don’t want to have the hassle of fixed personnel.

Yet, this is devastating development which need to come to a halt very quickly, as it leads to a further dehumanization and FTE-ization of workers in the current economic “Utopia”; or should I say “Dystopia”? 

When this general behaviour doesn’t change, the worker is threatening to become an outlaw without any rights whatsoever, in the current, neo-liberal economy. An economy which predicts a very bleak climate, for the people at the wrong end of the balance.

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