New work participation law for disabled doomed to fail

Government plans to make companies employ a quota of disabled people, while cutting spending on reintegration projects, is a dangerous and paradoxical mix, write Nelleke Cools and Kees Cools.

Just before Christmas the cabinet outlined its new legislation on the employment of the disabled, the so-called Participation law. In future at least 5% of every company’s workforce will have to be made up of disabled people. At the same time the budget for integration coaching will be subject to further cuts.

Companies already employing disabled people as well as the service industry are equally sceptical about the move. That is understandable enough. Social economic theories and experience have taught us that the rigid enforcement of rules only encourages cheating and lowers intrinsic motivation. A law that uses force to stimulate initiative on a smaller budget is doomed to fail.

The quota scheme which will force companies to make five percent of jobs available to people with a disability applies to companies and government bodies with at least 25 workers and will be phased in over a period of six years, starting January 1, 2014. Companies which fail to fill the quota will face a fine of €5,000 for every unfilled place.


A quota like this constitutes rigid force. Economic research has found that force, for instance in the form of performance targets, will invariably lower performance.

IIC from Delfgauw is a company which embraced the concept of employing disabled people long ago but is now thinking again. An innovative company which makes household appliances, IIC has a specially adapted hall to accommodate 160 people working in sheltered workshop schemes.

Director Patrick Schneider thinks the new law is a straightjacket and far from an incentive. If he has to employ these very motivated people who will knock on the door as early as 7.15 am (the office workers don’t put in an appearance until 8.30), he will have to pay them an hourly rate instead of per unit. This will make the company less flexible and costs will increase. The enjoyment, both for IIC and the early birds, will soon wear off. Forcing people into taking the initiative is a paradox. It’s like telling a person to volunteer: how motivated will that volunteer be?

Force also leads to cheating, or worse. Organisations which have never worked with disabled people before will look to their own employees to see ‘who fits the Wajong bill already’ in order to fill the quota. Unmotivated companies will try to get away with as little as the law will allow. They will find a corner for someone with a minor disability.

This is not what the law sets out to achieve. People with serious disabilities will still be excluded. And sometimes they will end up in an isolated spot which will do nothing to promote integration in the workplace, a basic premise of this law. 


Only five percent of Dutch companies currently employ a ‘Wajonger’ (young disabled person for whom employers get financial support, DN). That is not nearly enough. Some force could therefore be necessary to convince employers and make them enthusiastic. But they will need support.

Astrid Haccou, who works for re-integration company Middin, says that ‘experience shows a quota scheme on its own doesn’t work. But if it is coupled to a support system companies are quite willing to employ people with a disability.’

That brings us to the second problem this law poses: not only is it forced on companies, it also fails to provide the necessary funding. An integration coach is crucial for the successful participation of the disabled. For example, people with a mental disability like routine and will easily become upset and unable to work at the slightest change. A coach can spot this in time, explain what is happening and help the person to master any new requirement. Employers often don’t have time for this and will quickly have to find someone to lend the necessary support.

Formerly, subsidies for the coaching of disabled employees in paid jobs had no time limit. Now it’s three years at the most. The number of coaching hours has also been lowered from 15 percent of the number of contract hours to 3 percent over three years. From then on, the disabled and their employers will have to fend for themselves. This is in direct contradiction to what the law purports to do: to give structural employment to the disabled.


Every Thursday Serginio (29) serves MPs from behind the counter of the Binnenhof cafeteria. He doles out soup and tells them about the ingredients. He likes to chat to the customers and knows many by name. The logistics manager is also his coach: ‘Of course I had to invest quite some time in training Serginio but now I don’t really have to supervise him at all. It’s doing something for society but at the same time Serginio is working like everybody else.’ His presence is cheering everybody up, his coach says, and when he is around the atmosphere is much more relaxed.

Not only proper coaching but letting employers experience the benefits of employing people with a disability should be the government’s first priority. Ignorance is not always bliss. The idea to employ Serginio was the result of an annual one-day event during which employers meet disabled people. Ruud Haarms, head of the Binnenhof restaurant, is one of the participants. Some 400 organisations took part in 2012.

Haarms now employs three disabled people and is planning to increase their number. He liaises with the re-integration services and a coach is present in the building on a permanent basis.

Once people look beyond their initial prejudice and inexperience, employing disabled people will turn out to be a viable option. But it needs good coaching and some enthusiastic people, including at the highest level.

The Binnenhof houses 630 civil servants in 18 departments. The new law would dictate that at least 31 people with a disability would have to find work here. The personnel department has made the first moves towards this goal. But Haarms sticks to his own method: ‘it’s much better to be a frontrunner and not wait until it’s your turn.’

His 17 colleagues will not be welcoming their 28 disabled fellow workers if they are pressured into it and without adequate support. To paraphrase Emile Durkheim: where there is motivation, laws have no place. Where motivation and means are lacking, laws become impracticable.


Nelleke Cools is a strategic communication consultant

Kees Cools is a partner at Booz & Company and professor of corporate finance at Groningen University

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