THE TRADITION OF WORKER PARTICIPATION IN THE NETHERLANDS

DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/eb055119
Pages14-16
Publication Date01 Feb 1988
AuthorElies Steyger
subjectMatterHR & organizational behaviour
THE TRADITION OF WORKER
PARTICIPATION IN THE
NETHERLANDS
by Elies Steyger
State University of Limburg, Maastricht, The Netherlands
Introduction
Collective labour relations within the countries of Europe vary considerably. Some of these differences arise
out of history, for example, the industrial revolution in the Netherlands was 50 years later than it was in Britain.
But there is more. The cultural context in which bargaining is pursued has had an even more pronounced
influence on the regulation of collective labour relations. In the Netherlands, this culture has been fed by religious
ideas which are deep-rooted.
This article seeks to explain the underpinning attitudes to bargaining between unions and employers in the
Netherlands, which contrast with the differences in British culture. Thereafter, it will explore the forthcoming
changes in collective labour law, in particular in relation to health and safety at work law, since this area will
be markedly affected by new EEC regulations.
ER 10,2
1988
14
The Historical Context of Co-operation
The idea that employer and employee should co-operate
at the workplace is a fundamental and long-established
concept in Dutch labour relations. In English law, there
is a duty of co-operation implied by the common law
into the contract of employment. Whilst this has seen
some extension of late as a result of the requirement
to establish a breach of contract as the basis of a claim
for constructive dismissal, the implied term operates
largely at an individual level, and attempts to apply it
to collective labour relations have been rare (but see
Secretary of State for Employment v. ASLEF (No. 2)
[1972] 2QB 455). In contrast, the whole Dutch labour
law is built around the principle of (what I shall label)
co-operation, and without some knowledge of it, much
of the regulation of collective labour relations would
seem inexplicable.
As in Britain, earliest worker protection laws (see, for
example, the Factory Act 1833 and the Mines Act 1842)
were primarily concerned with the restriction and
prohibition of child labour, while conditions of
employment generally remained appalling. Unlike
Britain,
however, little attempt was made to allow
significant changes in the combining of workers into
trade unions; whereas the Combination Acts were
repealed in the first quarter of the 19th century in Britain,
Dutch law continued to prohibit worker organisation and
coalition until 1872. Early trade unions in the
Netherlands fought pragmatically for the right to
organise and strike, and for piecemeal reform of working
conditions. Although there may have been wider ideals
of worker emancipation, there was less of a concept
of class warfare or industrial conflict, and the union
movement was far less politicised generally.
Indeed,
even once legalised, strikes in the Netherlands
were a rare event, with unions showing a preference
for collective bargaining. The relative absence of conflict
can be attributed to a factor that will seem strange to
the British eye, the influence of religious beliefs on the
morality of union action. Orthodox protestantism acted
as a strong curb on any move for emancipation, since
it was underpinned by a belief that the existing social
order was God given, and that it was a matter of faith
to accept one's social status within that order.
This led to the growth of a movement of orthodox
Christian nature labelled patrimonium, a movement
which has no British equivalent and which contributed
much to the development of the philosophy of co-
operation.
On their analysis, the workplace was a
community within which employers and employees had
shared interests, so that any labour conflict would
amount to a destruction of those interests, and would
be contrary to the well-being of both parties.
Moreover, this movement had its Catholic equivalent
also promoting the co-operation ideal. This stemmed
from the corporatist notion of a carefully structured
economic unit. Here, there was some desire to use
industrial councils to control the economy generally, and
labour in particular. The intention was that these
councils should be private, in which both employers and
employees participated. Issues relating to wages,
worker protection, labour conditions and the like would
be raised in this forum rather than being the subject

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