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More power to the worker

In fact, it’s a miracle, especially if you think back to the gloomy expectations of economists when this crisis started in March last year. I am talking about what has happened in the labor market since then: there was a blow, layoffs followed, but on balance the market for people work surprised in a positive way. That’s great because ‘the job market’ sounds abstract, but it is of course the sum of lives in which work plays a major role. Losing a job, being insecure about what you earn – it has a huge impact.

Unemployment was surprising: it rose but was not too bad. The NOW wage subsidy kept many people with a permanent contract in their jobs. What was also surprising was the resilience in the more bleak part of the labor market where people were laid off, especially flex workers: after the first lockdown, a surprising number of dismissed people found a job again. The UWV benefits agency released figures about that resilience this week. Of the people who lost their job between March and October last year, 61 percent found work again within six months.

The UWV does not yet know what happened to the people who lost their jobs after October. But the UWV, like other economic indicators, is not in a gloomy mood. Unemployment has been falling for months. The number of jobs will decrease slightly this year. It will rise next year. If this comes true, the job distress will be much less than after the crisis of 2008, when unemployment continued to rise sharply for years to come; it only started to decline in 2014.

This is going to be a golden time for workers, a workers’ world, predicted The Economist

The macro numbers hide specific distress. This applies first and foremost to sectors. The ‘culture, sport and recreation’ sector has suffered the greatest blow and the expectations of the UWV are not optimistic. The NOW wage subsidy softened the blow here much less: there are many self-employed workers who had to make do with the leaner and stricter TOZO scheme. Things are also not going well in the cleaning industry.

And again it was the most vulnerable people who were hit: the flexworkers on the folding chairs of the economy. Almost everyone is convinced that they should get a sturdy chair to sit on. This is also apparent from the SER agreement that trade unions and companies concluded last week. The balance of power is shifting: the unions gained a lot. Flex work is being curtailed without reducing employee rights on other fronts, while this was part of the advice of the Borstlap committee last year.

The agreement is in keeping with the zeitgeist. Western politicians want to support workers. Business must move. This is going to be a golden time for workers,a workers’ world, predicted The Economist. More power to vulnerable workers is necessary and good. However, I also understand the criticism of the SER agreement. Little attention is paid to the interests of the self-employed. And employees in the plan receive a kind of permanent wage subsidy – instead of part-time layoffs (in times of emergency) where they also hand in some salary, as advised by Borstlap. Hans Borstlap himself was critical about it this week in the FD. But also mild. He understands that propping up workers comes first, before rights are cut. “You can only become agile if you are resilient.” In recent years, politicians were still cautiously looking for an answer to the question: more power to the worker, but how? Now the conviction is: more power must be given to the worker.

Marike Stellinga is an economist and political reporter. She writes about politics and economics here every week.

More power to the worker
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