Between 2003 and 2015, the number of flexible workers in the Netherlands increased from 2.1 million to 3.2 million, making it the country with the sixth highest percentage of flexible workers, behind Poland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

What flexible working is not

In a report published last month, Professors Paul de Beer and Evert Verhulp of the University of Amsterdam take stock of the flexible working situation in the Netherlands by answering 30 questions. They start by defining what they mean by ‘flexible working,’ explaining what it is not: ‘flexible working covers all forms of (paid) work that do not form part of a stable working relationship with fixed working hours’. In their report, the authors identify two main groups of flexible workers: workers with no contract of employment (self-employed people with or without employees), on the one hand, and workers with a temporary contractual relationship (those on fixed-term contracts, temporary agency workers, etc.) and/or with variable working hours (‘zero-hour’ contracts, on-call work, etc.), on the other.

40% of Dutch workers may be regarded as flexible workers (3.3 million in a working population of 8.3 million).

Almost a third of flexible workers (31%) are self-employed with no employees. Next come on-call and temporary agency workers (17%) and temporary workers with the prospect of a permanent job (13%). The fact that, over the past few years, a very high number of workers have moved into these three categories largely helps explain the increase of more than a million flexible workers between 2003 and 2015.

Compared with other countries of the European Union of the Fifteen, Netherland’s flexible worker curves intersect precisely at the time of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Until that time, the percentage of flexible workers in the Netherlands was below that of the other ‘long-standing’ Member States. After the crisis, there was a veritable boom in flexible working in the Netherlands, whereas, in the other countries of the EU-15, the situation returned to normal fairly quickly, after a small increase between 2005 and 2010.

The sectors where flexible workers are heavily present are agriculture (more than 70% of the workforce, with the self-employed being overrepresented), hospitality (65%) and the leisure, sport and culture sector (just over 60%).

Looking at the gender breakdown of flexible workers, it may be seen that women are slightly less affected than men, but this is explained by the very high proportion of the self-employed (almost 50%) among male flexible workers.

Flexible working is very unequally distributed by generation: it is the age groups at the extremities that are the most affected. Almost 70% of workers between 15 and 25 fall into this category, and indeed more than 80% of workers aged 65 or over. But it should be emphasised that the self-employed are overrepresented in the category of very old flexible workers, but poorly represented among the youngest, in contrast to workers with variable working hours.

The authors of the study also analysed this trend by education level: although it affects the whole of Dutch society, there is a differential of around 10% between Dutch people with a low level of education and those with a degree. Among flexible workers with a high educational level attainment, the self-employed are again overrepresented.

Workers of foreign origin are more likely to be flexible workers than native Dutch people.

Dutch employment law, under which a temporary contract has to be made permanent after two years, is no different from the legislation of other countries with a comparable social security system, such as Belgium, Germany or Sweden. However, the level of flexible employment in those countries is markedly lower than in the Netherlands. The boom in self-employed workers without employees in recent years may be attributable to the Dutch tax system, which is extremely favourable to this category.

The results of the Dutch study are consistent with data recently presented by the ETUI in its report, Benchmarking Working Europe 2017. This report also shows an increase in temporary work in the Netherlands since 2008. Moreover, the Netherlands is one of the countries where this form of working is the most widespread, after Poland, Spain, Croatia and Portugal.

Further reading:

de Beer, P. and Verhulp E., Dertig vragen en antwoorden over flexibel werk [‘Thirty questions and answers about flexible employment’], Amsterdam In... (pdf - 3.38 Mb)

Summary of the report (in English)