“Helping vulnerable workers is good for the economy”

Sonja Bekker, new full professor of European Social Policy

Sonja Bekker
Photo: Patrick Post.

Sonja Bekker has been appointed full Professor of European Social Policy at Utrecht University's Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance as of 1 September 2023. A chair at the School of Law, but the collaboration with other disciplines will be strong, because “a fairer, more inclusive labour market is important for society and the economy,” says Sonja Bekker. And the EU has great ambitions in this area.

This is a new chair, what is it focusing on?

The chair focuses on European social policy and the way in which the EU, together with member states and societal partners, can make the labour market more inclusive and fair. The European social agenda has been revived and provides innovative solutions to contemporary problems. For example, the EU is investing in a digital, green and inclusive economy. One of the European goals, for example, is to give all employees the right to fair working conditions, access to social protection and training, even if they have a temporary contract. This is not only good for the position of workers, but also important for society and the economy. For example, investing in training can increase the quality of the labour supply. This helps alleviate staff shortages.

At present, the most vulnerable people on the labour market are least well protected. Workers with low incomes and flexible contracts are more likely to be physically stressed and more exposed to hazardous substances, while at the same time having less access to good social protection. They stack several vulnerabilities in one job, as it were. We are not only depriving these workers, but also our economy.

So what is Europe doing to improve this?

The EU is using a combination of legislation, policy coordination and funding to work with national governments, trade unions, employers and civil society to take steps towards an inclusive and fair labour market.

Europe wants to give all workers the right to fair working conditions, such as training.

As a professor, I will investigate how these instruments work exactly and how they contribute to improving the labour market position of vulnerable groups. For example, during the Covid pandemic, the EU launched a temporary instrument (SURE), allowing countries to borrow money cheaply to finance their national systems of part-time unemployment benefits. This allowed companies in need, for example during lockdowns, to reduce their wage costs by temporarily sending their employees to benefits, without having to lay off their staff. The great thing about SURE was that self-employed people and some groups of flex workers were also reached. Incidentally, the Netherlands has not used SURE. We were able to finance this kind of aid ourselves at the time, but it worked very well for other countries.

Why does this chair have a European perspective?

The theme of a social Europe is underexposed in the Dutch debate. That's a pity, because Europe can learn a lot from the Netherlands, for example about the so called "polder model" of social dialogue between employers and employees. At the same time, the Netherlands can learn a lot from the European recommendations to improve our socio-economic position. For example, the new European Directive for an adequate minimum wage provides every reason to take a critical look at the level of the Dutch minimum wage and to advocate an increase. Practices in other countries can also provide inspiration for limiting flexibility in the labour market. For example, there are countries where, in principle, part-time contracts with a weekly working time of less than a third of a full-time job are prohibited or where a company may have a maximum of twenty percent temporary workers. Within Europe there are many starting points for reflection and ideas for innovative solutions.

How will you collaborate with other disciplines?

In addition to paying more attention to the theme of European social policy, I want the chair to be a flywheel for cooperation between various scientific disciplines, such as law, economics, sociology, human resources and political science. We will also collaborate with civil society organisations, such as employers' organisations, trade unions and NGOs such as EAPN, who are working on poverty reduction. Major issues relating to labour and social policy, but also to the dynamics between the EU member states, cannot be solved from a single discipline. It is precisely by looking at these kinds of issues from multiple angles that you can take steps to improve them. The stories of individual workers and societal organizations can give direction to scientific research. The EU can set legal frameworks, but how does it turn out in the day to day flow of the work floor?

Major issues concerning labour and social policy cannot be solved from a single discipline.

How does Utrecht University offer that space?

There are many places within Utrecht University where there is interdisciplinary collaboration on issues related to labour, but also around institutions that play an important role in the development of socio-economic policy. This is the case, for example, within the strategic theme 'Institutions for Open Societies' and within the 'Future of Work' research, which focuses on the causes and consequences of innovation, globalization on the working life of people, organizations and markets. With this, Utrecht University provides space for meetings between scientists on themes that are important to science and society. In addition, a new (Dutch) Master's programme in Employment Law will start this academic year (2023-2024), so these issues will also be given a place in education.

About researcher Sonja Bekker

Sonja Bekker often publishes about so-called 'atypical' employees, such as employees with a temporary contract, part-time workers, young people or people who do not earn enough from their job to rise above the poverty line. She was involved in a project within the Horizon 2020 program Working Yet Poor and is participating in a project on domestic work. Bekker worked at Radboud University Nijmegen and obtained her PhD at Tilburg University. From 2017 to 2020, she held a Jean Monnet Chair in the field of European Social Policy and Industrial Relations. This chair has been awarded by the European Commission. Since 2020, Sonja Bekker has been affiliated with Utrecht University, where she is also the initiator of ERI, where lawyers conduct empirical legal research into conflict-solving institutions.