What types of social distributive justice claims, interests and capabilities of vulnerable groups are evoked and recognised in legal, political, and advocacy debates in the Netherlands, especially when we look at the position of young women and non-Western migrants (in particular refugees)?

This post is part of the series of blogs explaining country-specific research papers. This series investigates how the non-realization (or limited realization) of distributive justice claims experienced by the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society are dealt with in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

In general terms, socio-economic justice can be understood as equal and fair employment opportunities, fair wages, access to goods and services, and equal participation in the decision-making process, to name but a few examples. Perceptions of injustice can act as powerful means of driving social change, triggering various groups to come together both formally and informally in order to oppose and change violations of their fundamental rights, dignity and respect. At the same time, differences in social and economic position, and real-life experiences among these groups may result in different conceptions on (social) justice and in different ways to realize it.

When we look at the legal landscape on social rights, the Netherlands scores high in promoting equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal liberties on the labour market. This has been proven by the longstanding tradition of social dialogue mechanisms and the egalitarian framework on working conditions since the 80’s. In fact, when we take into account the national and European-wide statistics, the Netherlands ranks fourth on the EU Gender Equality Index[1], only lower than the Scandinavian countries. At the same time, our empirical findings show that there are still some important (policy) issues to tackle and more importantly, that various groups are still suffering from injustices and struggles on the labour market.

Female (full) labour participation has declined over the past years in the Netherlands. As a result of budget cuts in the public sector after the economic crisis, and the increasing pressure on young mothers to provide for more (unpaid) family care, it is plausible to argue that this stagnation will continue. What is moreover striking is that (young) women still earn less than men in equal positions. In fact, the gender pay gap in the Netherlands is still relatively high compared to the EU-28 (now set at 16,2%).[2] A new Dutch legislative proposal is currently pending to change this inequality by means of providing fees to companies that pay women less than men in equal positions. These are steps in the right direction, but interviews with key representatives indicate that a so-called ‘mentality switch’ in which women are not seen as primary carers merely in society is crucial in order to achieve full distributive justice in the labour sphere.

Another detected issue is that a majority of women in the Netherlands works part-time, which reinforces their vulnerable position, e.g. it reduces salary, promotion chances and keeps the traditional role patterns of men and women in place. In addition, temporary jobs are an important feature of the Dutch labour market and influence the choices for women to start a family significantly as most women prefer to start a family only after they got a permanent contract. There are some parental leave arrangements available for young women to balance their work and family life, but these are currently unpaid. Other issues are the low share of women in higher positions, the precarious position of domestic female workers and young studying mothers under Dutch legislation.

In addition, the Dutch legal framework on pregnancy and maternity protection offers higher protection than the EU in certain matters, especially with regard to dismissal. However, lived experiences reveal that pregnant women and young mothers still suffer from discrimination on their path to finding a job or during their job contracts – e.g. non-extension of a temporary contract is one of the main issues detected. Since a majority of women do not always recognize situations as discriminating or because they do not want to risk the relationship with their employer, the level of reporting and litigation is rather low in practice. This makes the discrimination problem for employers and other stakeholders insufficiently visible and difficult to tackle. Progress could be made by means of educating women proactively on their social rights, from both employers’ and government side. All these elements – flexibilization, high ratio part-time working, pregnancy discrimination, low legal protection of studying young mothers – are able to significantly affect the financial independence of young women, yet many women are regularly unaware of these consequences or seem often reluctant (due to their often dependent position) to take these under special consideration when making high impact decisions in their lives.

For the second target group studied, it was found that refugees are lagging behind on other groups on the Dutch labour market for years. In fact, one-third is dependent on social benefits and of those that have lived for 10 years in the Netherlands only 50% has found a paid job. The labour market position of female refugees and the elderly is particularly poor in this respect. The Netherlands has implemented EU directives on the reception of refugees sufficiently, but municipalities enjoy high discretion to integrate refugees on the labour market, which leads to different practices. Factors that further impede their precarious labour position and distributive justice realization are high language standards, uncertainty with residence status, problems related to recognition of diploma qualifications, discrimination and stigmatization in society. In fact, empirical data have clarified that the categorization of ‘refugee’ within societal and political debates often decreases refugees’ sense of belonging into the Dutch society. One of the key recommendations for effective labour participation of this group is that municipalities, employers and NGOs work together in so-called ‘integrated pathways’ in order to streamline the integration process of refugees and to really look at the individual wishes of refugees, to monitor their integration process – even after finding a job – more closely as to prevent them from being dependent on the social security scheme. Work places should thereby combine language lessons to speed up the integration process.

Political debates colour the position of vulnerable groups in the Netherlands significantly. Despite the fact that the law is clear on who can be legally qualified as a refugee, political and advocacy discourses have an impact on the actual sense of belonging of refugees in the society. The law distinguishes economic migrants from political migrants. However, it is especially this legal classification that results in the two-folded categories of migrants as labeled and disputed in today’s political discourse – e.g. the ‘good’ vs. the ‘bad’ migrant, the legal vs. the ‘illegal’ migrant, the ‘political migrant’ vs. the ‘asylum seeker’, the ‘refugee’ vs. the ‘other’ or the ‘refugee’ vs. the ‘terrorist’.[3] Besides, the latest Dutch coalition agreement has placed high restrictions upon refugees’ integration process. Particularly problematic is the shortened duration of the residence permit from five to three years, after which an examination takes place to check whether the refugee is still entitled for protection. This leads to legal and economic uncertainty and complicates the labour integration process of refugees tremendously.

For young women on the other hand, new legislative proposals that aim to stimulate equal payment between men and women, together with paid parental leave initiatives seem to be a step in the right direction towards achieving distributive justice. Effective enforcement thereof seems to be an important challenge.

In any case, advocates of social groups have a vital role to play in raising awareness regarding the potential of anti-discrimination legislation. Strategic litigation has become a useful advocacy technique in the Netherlands; NGOs in particular can both directly engage in strategic litigation and support others to do so by gathering data, assessing victims of discrimination and engaging in advocacy, including in the field of labour matters. At the same time, political debates need to highlight the need for a human rights-based approach to social justice, through advocating for policies that ensure the enjoyment of economic and social rights for all, including, and in particular, for the ones that need it the most.


[1] See for the Gender Equality Index in the EU: http://eige.europa.eu/gender-equality-index/about.

[2] Eurostat, Structure of Earnings Survey, available at https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/2017_report_equality_women_men_in_the_eu_en.pdf.

[3] R. Apostolova (2015), ‘Of refugees and migrants: stigma, politics, and boundary work at the borders of Europe’,  Section Culture, available at https://asaculturesection.org/2015/09/14/of-refugees-and-migrants-stigma-politics-and-boundary-work-at-the-borders-of-europe/ [accessed on 10 June 2018].


By Barbara Safradin, Sybe de Vries and Roemer Sijmons
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D6.2
The cross-country analysis is available at: https://ethos-europe.eu/publications