Employers oppose work and care framework bill

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A "work and care" framework bill proposed by the Dutch State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment, provoked a storm of criticism from employers in February 1999. The central employers' organisation, VNO-NCW, and the organisation representing small and medium-sized businesses, MKB, both voiced their dissatisfaction over the proposal. The main point of contention is a provision obliging employers to allow employees a 10-day period of paid care leave per year. However, most of the parties involved, including employers, support the State Secretary's attempts to harmonise policy by means of the Act.

The "Work and Care Framework Act" (Kaderwet Arbeid en Zorg) proposed in February 1999 (NL9902126N) by the State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment, Annelies Verstand, has come under harsh criticism from Dutch employers. The central employers' organisation, VNO-NCW, and MKB, which represents small and medium-sized businesses, both condemned the proposal immediately following its announcement. The draft framework Act, designed to bring together all current and future forms of special leave for employees under a single Act, would also contain a clause specifying employees' rights to switch to employment on part-time contracts. The State Secretary has proposed several sources of funding. Relatively brief leave periods - an annual provision for 10 days' paid leave for employees to care for an ill member of their immediate family, for example - would be funded by employers, leaving employees with the financial burden for additional unpaid care leave and other forms of leave, such as adoption leave. A savings plan would be established for this purpose, to which employees would contribute 10% of their gross earnings to finance future leave.

Not the legislator's responsibility?

The chair of VNO-NCW, Hans Blankert, announced his organisation's "wholehearted rejection" of the plans. According to him, the social partners should be responsible for paid leave. Care leave provisions form part of conditions of employment, and employees should be offered the option of "substituting" care leave for pay or other types of leave. Mr Blankert stated that average working hours in the Netherlands are already extremely low, due to the high degree of part-time employment. Extra care leave could also cause organisational problems, whilst constituting an unpredictable cost factor for employers. The VNO-NCW views the State Secretary's legislative proposals as an infringement of the successful Dutch "polder" model of consensus and consultation.

MKB opposes both the legal right to care leave and the provisions on part-time employment contracts. Its chair, Hans de Boer, expressed concern that part-time employment legislation may prove damaging to the relationship between small and large businesses. Unlike larger firms, small businesses lack the organisational capacity to facilitate requests for part-time employment. Mr De Boer advocated tailor-made company level policy; part-time employment agreements should be reached on a voluntary basis, in consultation between employers and employees. The same applies for care leave. Research commissioned by MKB indicates that 12% of businesses have received a request for care leave at one time or another and that 43% of these businesses manage to find a solution internally. In Mr De Boer's view, a legal provision would be nothing short of "bizarre" since legislators are offering resources that are not at their disposal. In addition, legislation would, it is claimed, lead to more frequent use and subsequent misuse of provisions, whilst rejections of employees' requests for leave might disrupt labour relations.

The majority of State Secretary Verstand's proposals have been on the trade unions' agenda for over five years. Care leave is one of the recurring issues that has still not been satisfactorily settled in any of the major collective agreements. The points of contention are the same: should employees have the right to take care leave, should the leave be paid or unpaid, and how long would such leave periods last? The lack of an agreement on care leave is especially awkward now that the government has taken the first step by introducing the Financial Aid for Care or Study Leave Act (NL9705115N). The social partners' monopoly on negotiations over part-time work has produced few results to date. The bipartite Labour Foundation (Stichting van de Arbeid, STAR) signed an agreement in 1993 aimed at stimulating part-time employment (agreement on Overwegingen en aanbevelingen ter bevordering van deeltijdarbeid en differentiatie in arbeidsduurpatronen). After assessing the results of its efforts in 1997, the STAR concluded (in a report entitled Advies"Arbeid en Zorg") that it had failed fully to meet its original objectives (NL9803164F).

Combining employment with caring

The rift between employers and trade unions over the impact on work organisation of employees with care duties also became evident in the recommendations (Advies Toekomstscenario's onbetaalde arbeid) put forward in 1996 by the tripartite Social and Economic Council (Sociaal Economische Raad, SER) regarding a "future scenario study" carried out by the government advisory commission on the "reallocation of unpaid labour". The SER was unable to reach an unequivocal standpoint, despite the government's express request to the Council to assess a specific preferred scenario, the so-called "combined scenario". This would entail not only "outsourcing" to non-family members a larger proportion of care duties (resulting job creation), but also redressing the balance of care duties between male and female employees by enabling women to carry out more paid labour and men less.

Employees with duties of care are largely women in part-time employment. Women hold 75% of the available part-time posts; men with young children are represented on a less than average basis amongst male part-time employees. One measure mooted to stimulate "emancipation" would be to raise the profile of male employees with care duties, making it the standard or at least an attractive alternative. This would effectively mark the end of the era of the "breadwinner" model, with the man as sole provider for his wife and children. Participation in the labour market by (married) women has grown slowly in the Netherlands in comparison with other North European countries, but the figure has doubled since 1975 because of the rising number of married women who want jobs. State Secretary Verstand also expressed support for the combined scenario. Male and female parents working 75% of their normal hours, for example, would allow them time for care when combined with professional daycare facilities. Leaving parents an opportunity to care for their family is seen as a typical part of Dutch culture, although men seem to be atypical in this respect.

Although the SER underwrites efforts to harmonise male and female employment patterns, it does not support the move to create additional time for care based on part-time employment. It has embraced a different scenario which would entail outsourcing care duties to a far greater extent. The SER has severely criticised the proposed reassignment of responsibilities between the government and the social partners. The debate on the draft Work and Care Framework Act has brought this issue back into the spotlight.


VNO-NCW's conclusion that the framework Act proposed by the State Secretary is in breach of the successful "polder" model is merely one of a number of views. A 1996 study of current collective agreements led the Emancipation Council (Emancipatieraad), a governmental advisory body, to conclude that employers and employees have had sufficient time to reach agreement on the matter (Het primaat van een mannenbolwerk. Emancipatie in cao-onderhandelingen, M Sloep, Emancipatieraad, The Hague, 1996). The social partners' failure to do so makes collective regulation through legislation a more realistic option. The proposed Work and Care Framework Act comes in response to calls from employees, women's rights organisations and employers alike for a more coherent policy. Although employers' associations such as VNO-NCW and MKB acknowledge the need for employees to find a healthy balance between employment and care duties, there will indeed be short-term costs. The benefits - less stress, absenteeism and disability - will take some time to become clear. Although the government is already specifically stressing these benefits, employers have arguably failed to take them sufficiently into account in their initial response to the proposal. (Marianne Grünell, HSI)

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