New initiatives to grant employees the right to work part time

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In February 1998, both the Christian Democrats and the left-wing Groenlinks party formulated new legislative proposals to give employees a right to work part time. The latter party's initial bill on this issue had been blocked by the Christian Democrats in late 1997.

Just before the 1997 Christmas recess and against all expectations, the First (or Lower) Chamber of the Dutch Parliament rejected a legislative proposal on the right of employees to work part time (NL9712152N). In February 1998, renewed efforts were made in favour of this legislation. Ironically, the Christian Democrats (Christen Democratisch Appel, CDA), the party responsible for blocking the proposal, has now formulated its own proposal, while the bill's original authors, the left-wing Groenlinks party, has adopted another initiative.

The Groenlinks proposal, the so-called "Rosenmöller Bill", has now been modified to grant employees not only the right to reduce their working hours, but to extend them as well. As before, the employer must have strong organisational grounds for refusing the request. A clause has also been added which stipulates that other arrangements regarding part-time work within collective agreements, or with the works council, will take precedence.

The proposal from the CDA, a framework "care and work" bill, allows working hours to be reduced by only 20%. In addition, the CDA proposes to extend parental leave to four and a half months full time and nine months part time. It also wishes to introduce a legal right to three months of paid care leave. This could be financed from the proposed Career Breaks Bill (NL9705115N), which is sponsored by the Government and is currently under discussion in the First Chamber (under the terms of this arrangement, career breaks can be for education as well as care). Finally, the CDA wishes to enact legislation to regulate part-time work only if the social partners cannot agree on arrangements themselves within the next two years. This last condition was also the reason why it voted against the legislative proposal in the First Chamber in 1997.

Social partners' role

Under the terms of the CDA's proposal, the social partners would be given another two years to make arrangements for part-time work. In the meantime, 60% of collective agreements now include such arrangements. However, a third of these agreements contain arrangements only to study the possibilities for part-time work. Since 1989, the bipartite Labour Foundation (Stichting van de Arbeid, STAR) has put forward recommendations on part-time work and, in 1993, reached an agreement on measures to encourage it. This agreement advises the parties to collective bargaining to make concrete arrangements on how requests for part-time work will be handled at the company level. It also recommends that, "in principle, a request by an employee to adapt his or her working hours should be honoured, unless this cannot be reasonably expected on the grounds of strong business interests."

The Labour Foundation has taken the stance that, in theory, people with positions at all level in organisations should be able to work at times which deviate from normal working hours. The Labour Foundation therefore envisages a differentiation of working time patterns where hours can be both decreased and increased. The Labour Foundation points to the fact that almost half of all companies already offer part-time work out of business interests: the sheer volume of capacity required demands this. A crucial point for the social partners and the Minister of Social Affairs (another powerful advocate of part-time work) is the expected positive effect part-time work will have on economic growth and employment. It is precisely this effect - creating more employment through redistribution - that the proposed legislation seeks to achieve.

Evaluation

In October 1997, the social partners evaluated their efforts on part-time work ("Evaluatie van de nota inzake deeltijdarbeid en differentiatie van arbeidsduurpatronen", STAR, The Hague, 10 October 1997). In this evaluation, the Labour Foundation indicated that, although part-time work is indeed steadily increasing in the Netherlands, there is still potential for further growth. Since the agreement between the social partners, the percentage of part-time work has increased from 33% in 1993 to 37% in 1996; in 1987 the figure was a mere 22%. The Foundation has pointed to recent research which shows that 10% of employees aged 25 years and older wish to shorten their working hours, while more than 8%, especially women and young people, want more hours. The Foundation found that many collective agreements lack provisions to modify working time. This has made it unclear whether a given employee has a legal right to such an arrangement.

The Foundation has also noted that part-time work remains largely a "woman's issue" since 70% of women, and a little over 10% of men, work part time (this refers to figures supplied by the Dutch Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, which differ from contested OECD figures). Thus, there appears to be a gender gap in terms of working hours which ties in with the larger gender gap regarding business sectors and levels of position in organisation. Part-time work is over-represented in sectors such as commerce, the hotel and catering industry, education and health care. In male-dominated sectors such as industry and construction, the share of part-time work is much lower than the national average of 34%, and there is little growth. Moreover, higher level positions generally have a lower rate of part-time work.

Commentary

One of the discussions surrounding the rejected Rosenmöller proposal concerned whether the Netherlands, with its already high percentage of part-time work - twice the European average for both women and men - needed such a law. Both the "classic" liberal party (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD) and employers are outspoken opponents of the legislation. The employers would rather leave the matter to the social partners and the collective bargaining parties. Some trade union interests are also in favour of "self governance", although support for this view is waning.

The primary aim of the new legislation is to stimulate part-time work, and, although motives can differ, almost everybody in the Netherlands seems to agree on this. The social partners in the Labour Foundation are not entirely satisfied with the arrangements that have been made in collective agreements since 1993. The Foundation not only insists that clearer arrangements be made, it also urges employers who are still researching the matter and/or have still not concluded any agreements to do so. Thus, we can see that the wheels of self-governance turn slowly. Experience has shown that the threat of legislative regulation stimulates self-governance. This fact alone is an argument in favour of legislation.

It has been pointed out that the proposed legislation does nothing more than set standards which would affect not only collective agreements, but also companies and sectors where no collective agreements are concluded. No more can be expected of this legislation because it is obvious that if an employee were to go to court to enforce his or her wish for part-time work, this would place the employee's job in jeopardy. Nevertheless, the law could perhaps help remove a barrier for employees to asking for part-time work. Several studies have shown that the culture of the workplace is in itself an impediment: male employees are in particular hesitant about asking to work part time. On the other hand, this group does have an interesting potential: the image of the "new father" who wants to work less in order to devote more time to parenting.

Of course, a new law can never abolish a culture, but a law - as a new norm - can be used to support a particular cultural undercurrent. This development was recently supported by statements made by several male politicians that they placed caring for their children above accepting still more public obligations. Moreover, the last Rosenmöller Bill was presented along with research data that showed that 51% of the Dutch population is in favour of such legislation. Furthermore, on 8 March 1998, at an International Woman's Day meeting, Hans Blankert, the president of the largest employers' organisation, VNO/NCW, displayed his conviction that the proposed legislation will become reality in 1998. (Marianne Grünell, HSI)

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