The value(s) of labour law

The value(s) of labour law

To mark the occasion of professor Paul Van der Heijden’s return to Leiden Law School as professor of International Labour Law, a symposium entitled ‘The value(s) of labour law' has been organized today.

On February 8 Paul van der Heijden will step down as Chairman and Rector of Leiden University. He will take up his professorship of International Labour Law again. To mark the occasion of Van der Heijden’s ‘return’ to Leiden Law School, a symposium entitled ‘The value(s) of labour law' has been organized today (February 5, 2013).

In their 2001 advice to the Netherlands Law Association (NJV) Van der Heijden and Noordam distinguished six fundamental values of labour (and social security) law. Labour law and social security even more so, tend to be influenced highly by economic necessities, political realities and other practicalities. Sometimes the character of labour law might be perceived to be instrumental rather than principled. On the one hand, this makes labour law so interesting: it really is law in action. On the other hand, it may look somewhat too down to earth if not downright messy. (Anyone who, like me, has visited a textiles factory in Asia or is, like Van der Heijden, familiar with cases of torture and persecution of trade union activists, knows that working conditions can get – to put it mildly – messy too, to a lesser extent even in so called civilized countries.)

In order to prevent labour law from turning into a postmodern melting pot of incoherent measures, Van der Heijden and Noordam advocated that labour law is characterized by those fundamental values. Plans for labour law reform, be it new dismissal law, minimum standards for workers posted from abroad of the rights of works councils, should be tested against the following six values: responsibility, social security, protection, solidarity, non-discrimination and participation. At the symposium those values will be revisited; a wide array of speakers from different perspectives (e.g. child labour, position of trade unions) will address the value(s) of labour law and their meaning in this day and age.

I do not doubt that this afternoon’s topics will lead to lively discussions, interesting observations and useful insights. However, the substance of the values mentioned will change over time and is dependent on one’s political views, leading perhaps to contradictory outcomes. Responsibility of the individual and social security may be at odds for instance, and the same holds true for solidarity and participation. A balance needs to be struck between competing goals, values and interests. Reference to the values of labour law does not offer simple solutions to policy dilemmas, but may raise the level of the debate about them and lead to compromises that are more in line with the system already in place. There has been debate on whether or not the catalogue of values is complete, if there is a hierarchy to the values, to what extent they are practicable and if compensation of inequality between employer and employee should not be seen as the most fundamental principle of labour law.

Leaving the debate on the values of labour law aside, I would like to conclude with some remarks on the value of labour law. In my view its value lies in its aspiration to guarantee decent working conditions. This makes labour law of an important, if not essential, value to us all. Work is not merely a way of providing for one’s subsistence, but for most people a way to achieve happiness and personal development too. Labour law is an indispensable instrument to make this possible. Once again: labour law may be instrumental, it may sometimes deal with mundane issues – are postmen allowed to wear bermudas or should their legs stay covered, should an employer pay for coffee or tea during a break on a short business trip, can one get dismissed for not charging a colleague for a slice of cheese on a cheeseburger. That does not mean that it is without value(s).