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How will the Labour Inspectorate handle academics’ complaints about work pressure?

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The Labour Inspectorate has scheduled fourteen visits to universities after a complaint from the WOinActie protest movement about the immense work pressure experienced by many academics. The activists are pleased with this development, but are they expecting too much?

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What’s the complaint again?
Last December, the WOinActie protest movement collected over 700 complaints about work pressure from its members. Academics are forced to work too many hours, they claim, which has a negative impact on their health and their personal lives.

So now what?
The Labour Inspectorate has taken up the complaint, and the activists feel like they are finally being taken seriously. Incidentally, the Inspectorate was already planning on visiting the universities in response to complaints from female researchers, so they’re killing two birds with one stone.

What will the Inspectorate actually be doing?
They will review the universities’ written policies, a spokesperson says, and check to see if there are confidential counsellors, participatory bodies and a sound complaints procedure

Isn’t that just a paper reality?
The Inspectorate will also look at how employees’ complaints are handled in practice, which they can only do, of course, if complaints have actually been filed. “If there are no complaints,” a spokesperson for the Inspectorate says, “our visits will be over fairly quickly.”

And did those 700 academics file complaints with their universities?
That’s very much the question, and either way, proving that academics are working abnormally long hours will be a tall order.

But surely it’s no secret that academics work long hours?
No, it’s not, but according to the spokesperson, overtime will not be the focus of the Labour Inspectorate. The chief concern will be work pressure, which is not the same thing. 

So they won’t take working hours into account at all?
The Dutch Working Hours Act does not apply (or only partially applies) to people who work in the performing arts, medical specialists, military personnel and – you guessed it – academics. For academics who are higher up the ladder and who earn more than three times the minimum wage (over 64,000 euros per year), the Inspectorate will not be taking working hours into consideration at all.

Is WOinActie barking up the wrong tree?
The action group is calling on the Dutch government to make additional investments in higher education of more than one billion euros a year, but neither the Inspectorate nor the universities have any direct influence on public spending. After all, the treasury is managed by the government.

So why file a complaint?
WOinActie’s goal is to draw attention to the poor working conditions in the academic world, which could eventually lead to funding increases. So it would help the movement’s cause if the Labour Inspectorate were to support their claims.

But what if the Inspectorate reaches a different conclusion?
If the Inspectorate determines the action group’s complaint to be unfounded, it could backfire on them. For instance, the Inspectorate might conclude that the universities’ policies are all in order, that there are relatively few complaints and that hard work is simply part and parcel of the profession academics have chosen. This would be grist to the mill of WOinActie’s political opponents.

But hasn’t the Minister of Education already said that more funding is needed?
She has, and she has also acknowledged that academic staff are under serious pressure, but so far she has not explicitly stated that the current situation is unsustainable. For the time being, the minister has only committed to ensuring that universities will no longer be forced to compete as much for funding and first-year students. This should make a difference, she believes, and it might even allow universities to offer more permanent contracts to their researchers.

Isn’t she worried about the Labour Inspectorate’s verdict?
Not really. After all, the minister is not the employer under investigation, so she is not directly involved. Moreover, in response to parliamentary questions from GroenLinks, the Socialists and the Dutch Labour Party, she has emphasised that academics are also responsible for their own wellbeing: “For example, by taking care not to exceed the limits of their capabilities and by indicating in good time when they’re getting close to reaching those limits.” In the minister’s view, this is all part of being a “good employee”.

 

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