What shortcomings of the labour market are we becoming aware of now because of the current crisis?

“The dualisation of the labour market, which is to say, the split between people on permanent contracts and everyone else. You can see this reflected in the government’s support package for self-employed people and people on flexible-hours contracts. They are having a rough time of it and are the first people dismissed. Just look at the people laid off by KLM. When costs have to be cut, they are the first to lose their jobs. That’s not advanced mathematics; the same thing happens when the economic climate is normal. We’re simply getting a clearer view of the mechanism at work now. Last week some FNV representative (FNV is the largest trade union of the Netherlands – ed.) said that they had received a lot of messages from people on their probationary period who’d been told ‘sorry, we won’t hire you after all’ without any explanation. Certain groups of people are really suffering now. People who have attended vocational colleges, people from a non-Western migrant background, people with low levels of social or economic capital. The people who are currently applying for emergency allowances tend to earn subsistence wages to begin with. Judging from previous studies, I’d say we’re talking about one fourth to one third of all self-employed people.”

How can this problem be solved?

“I spent some time working at the Scientific Council for Government Policy, where we conducted two exploratory studies on flexible-hours contracts and robotisation. They showed that there are differences between people on permanent contracts and people on flexible-hours contracts in terms of the quality of their jobs, their salaries and their working conditions. One of the recommendations we issued, which I support wholeheartedly, was to give all people who work social security, rather than focus on people on employment contracts, self-employed people or temporary workers. Because we are all affected by certain things, be it long-term sickness or a crisis. In the Netherlands, we tend to provide help after the fact. Why not mitigate the risks before they are incurred? Obviously, entrepreneurs and companies choose to run certain risks, such as a loss of income when they are granted fewer assignments, but why are self-employed people not insured against risks that are beyond their control? Take long-term incapacity for work, for instance. You are at as great a risk of being hit by a car as I am.”

What kind of social security are you thinking of?

“Incapacity for work should be subject to public insurance rather than employee national insurance. Other countries give their citizens accounts into which the government deposits certain sums right from the moment you are born. You can use that money to get a degree or to pay your social security contributions. Self-employed people are required to deposit a percentage of their revenue in it, while people on employment contracts must deposit a percentage of their gross salary. Opponents of this system often say that there is not much solidarity involved, so certain minimum levels of savings should be observed, such as social security benefits. Personally, I think it would be very useful if we could take that kind of look at work and security once this crisis is over.”

Do you think we will do things in a smarter manner after the crisis?

“The Netherlands has somewhat neglected the public good, what with all the budget cuts and decentralisation we’ve seen in the last five years. That’s why we’ve seen people organise protest marches in The Hague (the seat of the Dutch government – ed.) in recent months – not just farmers, but also healthcare professionals and educators who protested against heavy workloads, low salaries and understaffing. At the end of the day, it’s about the extent to which society supports political choices regarding the individual good versus the public good. For instance, will you agree to pay more taxes so that society is able to pay teachers higher salaries?

“Kim Putters, the Director of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, recently said on Nieuwsuur that the public good seems to be gaining importance now. Like him, I’m curious to see whether, once this crisis is over, we will see fit to show our appreciation for those working in essential professions, whom we are currently applauding from our balconies, in a lasting way. Or will we forget all about them in a year’s time, as was the case after the global financial crisis? After all, we still have Europe’s highest outstanding mortgage debt. I wonder whether we actually learn from huge external shocks. I’ve grown a little more cynical on that score.”

What is the most positive outcome of this crisis?

“That we’re all working from home. Normally, only 30 percent of Dutch people with a job are allowed to work from home. Studies conducted by industrial and organisational psychologists have shown that that’s mostly because managers don’t trust their employees. They think you’re off to explore Rotterdam while you’re supposed to be working from home. I have no idea why, because there are so many highly educated people in the Netherlands. It’s as if managers, rather than focusing on the required output, feel like they must have their people ready at hand in order to boss them around. They want to see their employees. That’s pretty obvious from all the video calls that are being conducted as well. I hope they are now able to see, thanks to this crisis, that they don’t need to check up on their employees all the time.”

Why is working from home a good thing?

“It makes you a lot more productive. No, obviously not in these crazy times, what with your children being at home. But you don’t have to attend meetings, and you’re not getting distracted by your colleagues in your open-plan office. I’m not saying that people should be isolated four or five days a week. That’s not a healthy arrangement, because you need to talk to others to come up with ideas. But why wouldn’t you trust your employees to work from home one or two days a week if that’s what they want?”

corona labour market home office work life balance – bas van der schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Isn’t people’s tendency to take their work home with them a contributor to the burnouts they are experiencing?

“Of course it is. One of the reasons why we shouldn’t work from home every day, on top of the trust issues, is the importance of striking the right work-life balance. At the same time, though, it is up to us to ensure that we do so. We have the ability to close our laptops. We have the ability to draw up a schedule for the day. Come on, people, we need to take a bit of responsibility here for our own decisions.”

Don’t you think people should be protected from themselves?

“People aren’t always very rational, but that’s a very patronising attitude. I’ve heard politicians say that they should enshrine people’s right to be unavailable in law. I think they should have a little more faith in people’s ability to make up their own minds. It’s just like all those people who were incensed when they heard about the huge number of people who went to the beach and the market in The Hague. If you add all those people up, there were probably about ten to twenty thousand of them who were out and about, in a population of 17 million. The great majority of people do take the restrictions seriously. But to the media, everyday life and things that go well are less interesting than all those irresponsible people who queued to get lekkerbekjes (deep-fried battered fish – ed.) at Simonis in Scheveningen.”

Since we’re talking about quarantine: what with burnout being the No. 1 disease, isn’t it a blessing in disguise that people are now being forced to take it easy?

“I wonder whether it’s actually giving people peace and quiet. In general, I think it does. It might result in a bit of reflection, but as with the current appreciation for people working in healthcare and education, we’ll have to see what’s left of it a while from now. I think it would be a good idea anyway if we were to have a fundamental discussion on questions such as how work will be valued. Dutch people have never really accepted the notion, but there are quite a few studies out there that show that people are only productive five or maybe six hours per day. It would be great if we could all understand now that five hours’ work per day suffices to obtain the same level of performance. And it would also be great if people would say: ‘Hey, you know what, perhaps our work weeks should be shorter.’ That would be quite the outcome – being able to work shorter hours, and remotely, too. Unless our productivity takes an absolute nosedive in the next few weeks, obviously.”

Fabian Dekker (1978) is a sociologist of work who studied at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He was awarded a PhD in 2011 for a study on the impact of the gig economy on social security. He currently serves as a labour market project manager at the SEOR research agency, which is affiliated with the Erasmus School of Economics. He conducts research on the workforce participation of young refugees with a residence permit, new technology and work reintegration.