PhD defence: 160 years of unemployment schemes in the Netherlands

Date of news: 18 October 2021

The creation of unemployment schemes in the Netherlands between 1861 and 2020 was always accompanied by struggle. With his research, parliamentary historian Leon van Damme provides insight into how the character and objectives of the unemployment schemes have changed over the past 160 years. Van Damme will defend his thesis on 19 October. A trade edition will be published by Boom publishers early next year.


The very first unemployment insurance dates from 1861. In that year the Amsterdam association of typographers De Nederlandsche Drukpers founded the Onderling Hulpfonds Boekdrukkunst. This example was soon followed by other trade unions. From 1914 onwards, the central government started to actively interfere with these regulations. Since then, new or modified unemployment schemes have been adopted in the Netherlands. How exactly these schemes came into being and how they differed from one another had never been made clear until recently. Parliamentary historian Leon van Damme charted 160 years of unemployment schemes in the Netherlands.

Four periods

Van Damme divides the history of the unemployment schemes in the Netherlands into four periods. The first period runs from 1861 to 1952. During this period, there was much work, both inside and outside parliament, on compulsory unemployment insurance for all employees, which led to the unemployment insurance act (WW: Wachtgeld- en werkloosheidsverzekeringswet) in 1949. This law had to prevent an excessive poverty trap among employees who unintentionally became unemployed. In the second period, from 1952 to 1977, the WW was expanded and new and generous unemployment schemes were created. Citizens had to benefit as much as possible from the increased prosperity. From 1977 to 1994, the policy was more focused on reducing costs: the WW was scaled down. In the last period that Van Damme distinguishes, from 1994 to the present day, the policy was aimed at activating the unemployed. In order to achieve this, the WW was further curtailed. During all of these time frames, financial-economic, socio-economic and/or demographic motives were leading in the final political decision-making.

Government involvement

Over the years, the government increasingly cut back on funding. However, this did not mean that the government also became less involved in financing unemployment schemes. The government has always been an important player in the creation and adaptation of unemployment schemes. But not the only one. Van Damme speaks of a political-social force field, in which cabinets, departments, parliamentary parties, central employers' and employees' organisations, but also scientists and advisory and consultative bodies were active. Van Damme's research shows that the year 1909 - in which a state commission on unemployment was established - was the start of regular advisory and consultative meetings between the government and the central employers' and employees' organisations. This later came to be known as ‘poldering’. However, its importance should not be overestimated. Consensus was often not achieved. Employers' and employees' organisations were usually diametrically opposed. While employers pleaded for austere arrangements for a select group, employee organisations wanted generous blanket schemes, financed by general resources if necessary.

Unequal footing

Moreover, the participants never consulted on an equal footing: there was never an equal distribution of power, Van Damme argues. The influence of the employers was greatest in the first period (1861-1952). Using mainly economic arguments, they managed for a long time to convince successive cabinets to postpone the introduction of compulsory unemployment insurance. Between 1952 and 1994, the consultations showed unmistakable corporatist tendencies. Another crucial factor was that some MPs from the larger 'traditional' governing parties (VVD, PvdA and CDA) were specialists who had previously been involved with the employers' and employees' organisations. As a result, there were multiple links between these parties and business organisations, and employer and employee organisations were able to exert considerable influence on the government's plans for unemployment schemes.

Dependent on changes

In view of the history of unemployment schemes, Van Damme thinks it would be better not to use the term 'social security'. Instead, he recommends the term 'income-replacement schemes'. According to Van Damme, 'social security system' wrongly suggests an effectively organised and coherent set of schemes. A truly coherent and uncomplicated system, however, has never been established. Moreover, the term 'social security' suggests that the government is able to guarantee social welfare. The history of the unemployment schemes mapped out by Van Damme, however, shows that the guarantee of this basic social right is too dependent on changes in national and international financial, socio-economic, demographic and - above all - political factors.

Leon van Damme will defend his thesis on 19 October.