Responsible behaviour?!

13th of September 2011
Responsible behaviour?!

Dutch reporter Anton Duisterwinkel on the new Code for Responsible Market Behaviour.

May 25, The Hague: the Code for Responsible Market Behaviour is officially presented to the minister for social affairs and employability, Henk Kamp. This code is a voluntary agreement between the major parties of the largest labour dispute that hit the Netherlands in years, the cleaners strike in 2010.

It puts forward a number of rules for clients, cleaning companies, intermediates and organisations that represent these companies and trade unions. This in an attempt to reinstitute some trust in the trade and to counter the apparent causes for the dispute.

It is believed that the way cleaning work is tendered is one of the major causes of the recent conflicts in the trade. In these tenders, the price of the product is the only determining factor. Cleaning quality, service and expertise are not valued. In order to win tenders, cleaning companies feel that they need to quote extremely low costs. This results in unreasonable offers, which can only be realised by putting cleaners under huge stress, severely cutting middle management and even by bending the rules.

An additional problem is that the contract time is shortened from more than seven years on average to hardly three years. Consequently, cleaning companies have only three years to earn back the investments in the quotations. Inevitably, the stress on cleaning workers in combination with their low payments leads to conflicts.

During the strike, the clients, often large companies like the Dutch Railways, Schiphol Airport, hospitals and so forth, were pointed to their responsibility. They should not accept quotations that can never be met without bending rules or cutting corners. So, in a first step to setting up a Code, it was attempted to set standards for production norms, hourly rates and contract duration. However, it appeared that The Netherlands Competition Authority would not accept such norms, as they would infringe on open competition.

Consequently, the Code that is presented remains rather vague. For instance, clients are urged to not only select on price, but to weigh this reasonably against other factors. The Code also points to the responsibilities for a client company to ensure sound labour conditions, and urges these companies to discuss labour conditions yearly with cleaning companies. Comparable demands are also put on cleaning companies (eg, deliver clear quotations) and on their employees (who
should learn Dutch, for instance). Intermediates are expected not to work for cleaning companies and their clients at the same time.

These demands hardly go beyond common sense and  legal obligations. Furthermore, it suffices to declare that you follow the Code. No official assessment is organised and no sanctions are described. The committee that prepared the Code will stay in place and discuss complaints.

Naming and shaming of obvious and repeated offenders is proposed and the participating organisations for cleaning companies and intermediates are working on rules on their membership. It is therefore no surprise that most reactions to the code are only mildly positive: ‘a first step in the good direction’. Maybe, this is all that could be expected after such a large conflict.


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