Participation Act: handbrake off, but no need for TU/e to apply full throttle

Five thousand euros per vacant job - that is the penalty companies and government bodies, and thus TU/e, will face if in 2022 they are not employing sufficient people who are distanced in some way from the job market. But even though the university is still far from achieving its target, the chair of the new TU/e steering group for the Participation Act sees no reason to panic. “We have the time to integrate this initiative successfully and in a sustainable way.”

photo David Ernst

Roughly three percent of employees of either companies or government (semi- and full) should be people who are distanced in some way from the job market. This was the starting point for the Participation Act, which came into force in 2015. Follow-up conducted throughout 2017 revealed that companies had reached their targets, “but for government bodies the target was still a long way off,” explains policy advisor Tineke van den Bosch of TU/e’s Personnel and Organization.

Reason enough for the Ministry of Social Affairs to increase the pressure on the public sector by introducing the Quota Act: while in 2018 an admonishing finger might have been the only consequence of not achieving targets, in 2019 every unfilled job (equal to at least 25 ‘remunerated’ hours) will warrant a severe penalty.

Moreover, the legislation in question is, says Van den Bosch, still constantly changing, due in part to protests voiced by the public sector. Take the targets, for example. In the case of TU/e, when the Quota Act was introduced the definitive target rose from 80 to 140. Whereas for the Participation Act the only people who count are those who were hired after January 1st 2013, for the Quota Act employees in service before that date also count.

In addition, according to Van den Bosch a heavily debated issue has been whether or not to count employees not on the payroll of, in this case, TU/e, but who do work for the university - via service providers hired, for example, to do the cleaning and catering. The policy advisor speaks of “a complicated system” and this, she says, has encouraged people to look for ways of simplifying the Quota Act. Accordingly, as things now stand, the implementation of the legislation and any penalties that may be imposed will be suspended until January 2022; the Upper House has yet to approve this proposal.

“One hundred forty people is negligible”

Complicated system or not - according to the chair of the steering group Laurent Nelissen it should not be too complex a task for TU/e to achieve its targets. One hundred forty employees (although the definitive number will probably change) among a total workforce of more than four thousand: “Really, that's negligible”. In any case, as he observes, diversity and inclusivity on the campus have been the focus of significantly greater interest in recent years, “and that means that similarly in staffing we have become more open to having people who are distanced from the job market”.

This focus of interest is not a new development, he hastens to add - albeit it that it was greater and more visible at the one department or TU/e service than the other. Nelissen mentions, among others, the TU/e service Internal Affairs and his own department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, where people have been working under the Participation Act for years now. Moreover, he says, this experience makes it abundantly clear that within the target group itself there is much greater diversity than some stereotypical images would lead one to suspect. “People can do fantastic work in a lab or contribute in some other way to the primary process. The potential is so much greater than is often thought at the outset.”

This last issue is among the things the new steering group and its associated working group wish to make more explicit in the coming period. If only because there are still managers who have their doubts when it comes to the hiring of people with any form or degree of disability, Nelissen points out. This is motivated in part by the fear that a great deal more supervision will be required or that absence due to sickness will increase. “ ‘What are you getting yourself into?’ they'll say.” While, as he adds with a wink, “we already have people with their own limitations among our academic staff.”

The primary process is one place where the 'participants' referred to by this legislation can, he believes, bring significant added value, while simultaneously sparing others from the rising pressure of work. “There are plenty of appealing administrative tasks, based on clear protocols and procedures. Tasks that have no immediate urgency; given that often you don't want to put too much pressure on the people involved.” As a rule, these are people with a good brain, as Nelissen is quick to emphasize, some of whom hold a technical degree, but for whom the job market is particularly challenging due to, say, their autism or the consequences of a stroke.

“We shouldn't be looking for any band-aid solutions”

The latest status (as at November 1st) is that TU/e had filled 23 jobs under the Quota Act - a number that still seems far short of the 140 jobs the university must have realized in 2022, even though the final target will probably be lower, expects Van den Bosch. “But we are working on the basis of 140, then we won't be caught out”. Through the TU/e Directors Council this number has now been subdivided across the TU/e services and departments. If any department has not reached its target in 2022, it will be responsible for paying its own penalty.

But the chair of the steering group Nelissen is remaining calm. “We've no reason to panic, we don't need any band-aid solutions, nor to quickly hire people who'll be gone again in a couple of years. We want to integrate this initiative successfully and in a sustainable way in our organization and we have sufficient time to do that. The handbrake has to come off, but we don't need to apply full throttle.”

An important role in these developments will be played by the aforementioned new steering group (which meets each quarter and reports to, among others, the Directors Council), and a working group that meets once a fortnight. In their own words, they are not keen to take a directive role but to act in concert with departments and TU/e services - by informing them of various pieces of legislation and regulations, by taking stock of the kind of support that is needed, by discussing best practice and new options, and by putting to bed the “horror stories” that still have currency at some departments and TU/e services. For a little trepidation does remain here and there, as Van den Bosch has also noticed, “but equally I am seeing that people are embracing this and coming up with ideas”. 

Another, more concrete measure is that in any new public tender TU/e will ensure it is stated that a certain percentage of the employees hired must fall under the Participation Act. This is the case, for example, in the forthcoming public tender for cleaning services and for the photocopiers /multifunctionals on the campus, “without ousting those employees now present, of course.”

“It's about people not numbers”

Aside from the obligation to meet targets, both Nelissen and Van den Bosch emphasize, they feel TU/e has a social responsibility. “First and foremost this is about people, not just numbers. TU/e is keen to be representative of our society, and this group of people has a place in our community; this is another aspect of diversity. By enabling them to participate in the work process, we enable them to broaden their social network and TU/e becomes a better, more inclusive organization.”

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