“Flexibilisation of labour” is a term that crops up with increasing frequency these days, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Netherlands. In the Dutch employment landscape of the 21st century, fewer and fewer workers hold permanent contracts and more and more people are self-employed or freelance, are hired as temps via employment agencies, are offered one or more fixed-term contracts, or are subject to on-call or “zero hours” arrangements with no guarantee of hours.
For both individuals and businesses, the rise of the “flex worker” is already a significant one. This shift and its impact is a subject of particular research interest to Wendy Smits, a senior statistical researcher at Statistics Netherlands (CBS) who, perhaps appropriately, holds a a part-time professorship in labour market flexibility at ROA. Some of her findings will form the subject of the inaugural lecture she will deliver on 24 November, “Labour Market Flexibility: The Employer’s Perspective”.
The age of the ZZP
“In the Netherlands there has been a huge increase in the number of flex workers in the past 10 to 20 years,” Smits observes. “Moreover, we have also seen a rise in all types of flex workers: not only employees with a flexible contract, but also so-called solo self-employed workers [zelfstandig zonder personeel, or zzpers, in Dutch]. There is a lot of debate on this issue, and there’s a lot of concern about consequences for those workers.”
Because there are so many different types of flex workers, Smits says, it is even harder to pinpoint what the consequences of this trend may be. “On the one hand,” she says, “the solo self-employed have very little power, but on the other hand, there are a lot of very successful solo self-employed workers.”
So-called fake self-employed workers are another complex group. “A fake self-employed worker is someone doing work that could have been done as an employee, and who is directed by the firm,” Smits explains. “Such a worker is not really independent. We look at the solo self-employed worker and look at whether they are dependent on one client, and whether this client determines also the working times.”
For businesses, Smits acknowledges, labour force flexibility can be advantageous. Firms increasingly characterise permanent contracts for workers, with their associated rights and benefits such as sick leave, as expensive. In contrast, “if solo self-employed workers are hired instead of employees, they may end up being paid less than the minimum wage”.
Do the advantages of the various forms of flex work outweigh the negatives?
“On the one hand,” Smits says, “there is research that suggests that more and more flexibility is good for the economy and helps firms to adjust their workforce more easily when there are fluctuations in demand for their products. It can help the economy to become more competitive. That’s a good thing – it creates more jobs. It also gives opportunities to the unemployed.
“On the other hand, there are people who argue that market flexibility doesn’t provide incentive to innovate, which means that labour productivity isn’t really increasing in the Netherlands.” From that perspective, she says, “it’s a dead end, and there are a lot of workers for whom flex work is a trap”.
Smits contends that both arguments contain a grain of truth. “There are indeed groups of flex workers for whom you can say it’s a trap, but others for whom you can say it’s an opportunity,” she says. “Many solo self-employed workers say they are solo self-employed by choice, and one of the reasons they mention is that it’s easier to combine work with family, for example.”
Gender and sector disparities
In her research into flex workers, which she conducts alongside colleagues with backgrounds in fields as diverse as sociology and psychology, Smits has found significant differences across gender and sector.
Women, who make up the majority of the Netherlands’ part-time employees, tend to work as on-call employees, while men are more likely to work through temporary placement agencies.
Flex work also varies across different types of jobs. “On-call work is very frequent in retail jobs, and in the hospitality sector,” Smits says. “Solo self-employed people often work in the construction industry, but also a lot in the creative industry – writers, journalists and so on. It’s quite a diverse group. Longer temporary contracts, which run more than a year, are often given to people working in education and research and health.”
Smits is particularly interested in the business perspective on flex work and its consequences, which she believes has been under-researched.
“Flex work is good for firms, in that it gives them more flexibility to adapt to demand, but on the other hand temporary employees can be less motivated, and workers and firms do not invest in each other as far as firm-specific knowledge,” she says.
“There are a lot of arguments, but we still don’t have a good picture of what is really going on at the firm level.”
Wendy Smits is a senior statistical researcher at Statistics Netherlands (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek) and part-time professor in labour market flexibility at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), Maastricht University.
Text: Tracy Brown Hamilton
Photo: Marco Marti