THE HAGUE — As Japan remains mired in an economic slump, the idea of work sharing is increasingly attracting the attention of the government, labor unions and business organizations as a way to handle the record level of more than 5 percent unemployment.
The Netherlands, which introduced work sharing in the early 1980s, is often seen as a model of success. The nation has managed to drastically cut its jobless rate and its massive fiscal deficit while achieving steady growth.
In the process, the Netherlands has achieved both a healthy economy and a healthy lifestyle.
Marion S. Kappeyne van de Coppello, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wanted to have a rewarding life both at home and work — fulfilling the duties of a managerial position as well as spending sufficient time with her three children.
By sharing the directorship of the Human Rights, Good Governance and Peacebuilding Department with colleague Susan Blankhart, her wish was fulfilled.
“The same title, same responsibility, sharing the directorship,” said Kappeyne van de Coppello, 49, at her office in the ministry.
This shared position, which lasted for 10 years until March, when Blankhart was appointed ambassador to Sri Lanka, enabled both women to have two mornings and two afternoons off and to work 30 to 35 hours a week instead of the 60 to 70 required full time.
J. W. Voute-Zevenbergen, 37, a lawyer at Rotterdam-based law firm Loyens & Loeff, puts in 20 percent less time than a full-time staff member, leaving the office at 4:30 p.m. on weekdays to pick up her children at kindergarten.
“I am still available five days a week, although not late in the evening,” said the mother of three. “I like it this way because I feel I have a full career in the office and I also have time with my family.”
Working shorter hours to spend more time with family or on personal pursuits is common in the Netherlands.
About 34 percent of employed Dutch people work part time, the highest rate of any industrialized country. In the Netherlands, part-time workers are defined as those who put in 35 hours a week or less.
The main reason for the large part-time workforce are laws that guarantee equal treatment — in terms of hourly wages and conditions such as promotion — for both full- and part-time workers.
Since July 2000, employees have also been able to decide their working hours.
In Japan, part-time employees are in a much weaker position than regular full-time workers. Their average hourly pay is less, they are not entitled to benefits such as health insurance and housing, and they can easily be dismissed.
In the Netherlands, encouraging part-time work through rights-protection legislation and individualization of the pension and tax systems helped create jobs, especially in the service sector.
The nation enjoyed an average of 3 percent annual economic growth between 1991 and 2001, with the jobless rate in 2001 standing at just 2.7 percent.
Such figures look like a miracle when considering the situation in the early 1980s, when the country suffered an unemployment rate of up to 12 percent and massive fiscal deficits that rose to 6.6 percent of GDP.
Its success in overcoming the “Dutch disease” has been attributed to wage moderation, liberalization of the labor market and cutting back on government expenditures, according to J. W. Oosterwijk, secretary general of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Creating new jobs boosted the government’s tax revenues. And as the new work-sharing system enabled many housewives to work part time, the reduced wages for individual employees did not affect consumer spending because each family’s overall income remained much the same.
Many experts agree that the consensus among the government, employers’ associations and labor unions is what made it possible to draw up and implement such drastic measures.
Under the milestone Wassenaar Agreement, struck in 1982, the employers’ associations agreed to protect employees by introducing shorter working hours; the labor union agreed to the moderation of wage increases; and the government agreed to cut the fiscal deficit by reducing civil servants’ salaries, cutting spending on social security benefits, and easing the tax burden on companies and individuals.
“The important thing is that we all stuck to the agreement,” said Sip Nieuwsma, senior adviser for social affairs of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW), the nation’s largest employers’ organization.
Experts believe the agreement was possible because a consultation process between employers and employees at different levels has been in place in the Netherlands for more than 50 years.
Having a mixture of full- and part-time workers is beneficial to a company as it can arrange its workforce in accordance with changing workload volumes.
“Having people full time doesn’t match the work we have,” said Martien A. G. Heeremans, manager of human resources development at Nissan Europe. “So we deliberately looked for part-time labor (to help at the warehouse). It gives us an opportunity to employ people in a flexible way.”
He also noted that providing better working conditions helps the company recruit competitive workers. More people, he said, are choosing a company based on its quality, rather than financial benefits.
Frank van Dijk of the human resources department at ING, a major financial organization based in Amsterdam, said he finds part-time workers are more efficient, as they “are keen to finish work (during their work hours).”
The spread of a more flexible approach to work has also influenced the way an average Dutch couple lives. Traditionally, it was taken for granted that Dutch wives and mothers would do household chores and take care of the children, but this too is changing.
Heeremans at Nissan Europe took 14 months paternal leave after his son was born in October 1999.
Nissan Europe allows new parents to work half their normal working hours for up to six months.
Heeremans spread the shorter hours to 14 months, combining full- and half-time days.
“I was torn (between work and family),” he said, recalling his feelings when he decided to take the leave.
He also thought that taking the leave would affect his future career. But it turned out all right. “The company respected my decision,” he said.
One major challenge now facing the Netherlands, observers say, is how to expand the concept of work sharing to cover the elderly and disabled.
The government is presently working to reduce the number of people who live on disability benefits — currently about 1 million — by encouraging them to return to the labor force.
The Social and Economic Council, an advisory body to the government, compiled recommendations in March to revise the system by imposing stricter conditions for receiving benefits. The government has also drafted a proposal to be submitted to parliament.
“We need financial incentives to help the unemployed (disabled and elderly people) back into the labor market,” said J. H .J. Junggeburt, a professor at Amsterdam University, who specializes in labor market strategy.
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