Back to normal

Back to normal

Is a separate legal employment status required for public servants? Under the Normalisation Act they will lose it!

Workers in the public sector have to deal with a lot of prejudice - they don’t work hard enough, they earn too much and it’s nearly impossible to fire them. Whenever government needs to cut public spending, bureaucracy and bureaucrats are more often than not targeted. In politics, at least, public servants do not have many friends and they are easy victims for budget cuts. ‘Cutting red tape’ and ‘fighting Kafka’ go down well with the electorate.

Bearing this in mind, it will not come as a surprise that there is a lot of political support for the so-called Normalisation Bill. The second chamber of parliament will vote on this bill today. When enacted, the separate legal status for (most) public servants will disappear. At present they do not have an employment contract, unlike employees. They are appointed by unilateral decision of the public body they work for. Separate legislation, not the Civil Code, regulates their working conditions and dismissal. Instead of civil procedural law, administrative law applies to conflicts between public employer and public servant.

Given the ‘bureaucrat-bashing’ tendencies in politics, it’s easy to understand that a lot of public servants and their unions view the bill with suspicion, if not outright hostility. They see it as yet another attempt to curtail their rights. One more step on the Thatcherite road of privatization, implementing market mechanisms and the destruction of the public service.

I wholeheartedly share the view that a good public service is essential for our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. To name some examples of those who enjoy support, even in political circles: fire fighters, nurses, teachers and police officers. In my opinion, it follows from this that workers in the public sector need to receive decent wages and enjoy proper job protection. That does not mean, however, that a separate legal status is required. From an equal treatment perspective, there’s a lot to be said for applying the same fundamental rules to all workers. What’s good enough for workers, is good enough for public servants too. It must be stressed that a vast number of public service workers already perform their job under an employment contract. In the case of the medical services and education sector, a majority of workers has an employment contract.

Opponents of the bill seem to overlook that this separate status is not an end in itself. The rights and duties of public service workers need to be stipulated clearly by law, for sure. I fail to understand why that could not be achieved under ‘normal’ employment contracts. The claim that public servants would become dependent on the political whims of their masters, and would be living in constant fear of losing their jobs, is no more than a myth. (On the other hand: supporters of the bill do not need to get their hopes up on speedy dismissals. The termination of employment contracts is not that simple either.)

We expect decency, integrity and impartiality from public servants. Especially when they are taking decisions that have a huge impact on our lives. Employees with an employment contract can uphold these values too. The fact that someone works because of a contract , does not make him a mercenary. Employment contract law is perfectly suitable to ensure that public servants perform their duties diligently.

The separate status was introduced at a time when employment contract law was still in its infancy. To offer protection to public service workers and to safeguard the integrity of the public service, a separate status was necessary. That historical justification has lost its meaning in the current system. Over the past decades, the positions of private and public service workers have gradually grown closer anyway. The Normalisation Bill is just a small step.

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Barend Barentsen

Update 4 February 16h15: half an hour ago, the bill was passed by the second chamber...

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