Inaugural speech Prof. Wendy Smits on flexible labour

/ Author: Masja de Ree
The effects of flexible labour on people, organisations and society can only be measured properly when a distinction is drawn between the many different forms of flexible labour. This was the key message in Professor Wendy Smits’s inaugural address at Maastricht University on 24 November 2017. Smits is a senior researcher at Statistics Netherlands (CBS) as well as an endowed professor in Labour Market Flexibility. There is a lot of public debate on flexible labour and its pros and cons, she explains. ‘We have conducted a lot of research on this subject during the first year of my professorship.’

Agency workers at risk

Smits distinguishes various groups of flexworkers. The first group includes workers with longer term flexible contracts. They are often highly educated, are paid well and perform analytical work, e.g. in the field of research or education. Another group are the on-call workers. These workers tend to be lower educated, have low paying jobs and perform non routine manual labour, e.g. in hotels and restaurants or as shelf stackers. This group includes many students with part time jobs. A third group are the agency workers. They are often older than on-call workers and do mostly full-time work. On average, agency workers have a lower or medium education level and perform routine jobs, e.g. in manufacturing. ‘This group is at risk,’ says Smits. ‘Employment is declining in routine jobs, and these people often have few alternatives given their educational background.’

Do challenging work

Finally, there is the group of solo self-employed workers (in Dutch ‘ZZP-ers’). ‘There is also a lot of discussion on the position of solo self-employed workers,’ says Smits. ‘The discussion often focuses on ‘fake self-employment’: those who call themselves self-employed, but who engage in a disguised form of employment.’ An example are the self-employed with only one client: ‘In our research, we draw a distinction between the ‘classical’ self-employed who mainly sell products versus the ‘new’ self-employed who sell mainly labour. The latter group sometimes perform tasks which might as well be performed by employees. But in fact, only 6 percent of these ‘new’ self-employed are economically and organisationally dependent on a single client. It is definitely a problem for them, but so far no indication that fake self-employment poses a major social problem.’ Smits emphasises that more research is needed, not only to determine whether the definition of fake self-employment is appropriate, but also to obtain insight into the whole group of vulnerable solo self-employed workers. At any rate, the group of self-employed is very diverse and includes many who are paid well and do challenging work.

Over the past few years, Smits and her CBS colleagues have developed new statistics for better mapping of the flexible labour phenomenon  

Take differences into account

Over the past few years, Smits and her CBS colleagues have developed new statistics for better mapping of the flexible labour phenomenon. ‘We now know that, if you want to find out the effects of a more flexible labour market on workers themselves, but also on employers and on society as a whole, then you simply have to take into account these different groups; one overall figure on flexible labour says too little.’ In the course of next year, Smits’s research group will first of all take a more in-depth look at the diversity of the flexworking group as well as the various effects of this group on organisations. There are many theories on this subject, for instance that companies using a lot of flexworkers have additional flexibility in economically uncertain times. Also, that these companies run a greater risk of brain drain or insufficiently motivated personnel. Smits: ‘Only by doing research can we test those theories.’