After the Black Death – only then was there a demand for workers. What can we learn from it?


Image Getty, Editing Studio

Even after the Black Death, in 17th century Amsterdam and during the reconstruction period, there was a great demand for workers. Connoisseurs of these periods give tips on what to do and what not to do in such times.

Lesson 1: Wages are not just rising

In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death swept through Europe. About a third of the European population succumbed to this plague. As a result, there was still work to be done, in all kinds of industries.

In theory, therefore, the surviving workers were economically backward: now that the demand for their labor was high, they could demand high wages. It dictates the economic law of supply and demand.

But things went differently, says Jan Dumolyn, a historian at Ghent University who specializes in the Middle Ages: “In Flemish cities, for example, the elite took measures to keep wages low. England received the workers ‘statute.’ According to the provision dating from 1351, wages were to remain at the same level as before the plague wave. In addition, workers did not just have to go looking for better paid bosses.

‘The law of supply and demand therefore did not apply when it came to work,’ Dumolyn concludes, ‘because the wealthy upper class raised barriers to higher wages. And today the same thing is happening. There is a shortage everywhere, but already now there are institutions that prevent wage increases. Meanwhile, large companies and investors are making huge profits. ‘ A recipe for great social dissatisfaction and problems, Dumolyn says.

In the 14th century, the upper class enforced the low wage with strict hand, with rules like the workers’ statute and by crushing revolts from dissatisfied workers. “It is no longer possible in today’s democratic society, so spokesmen for asset managers and banks come on television to tell them that wages really can not rise. Above all, the profits of large companies should not be tampered with ‘.

Unwise, says Dumolyn, because the recent past also shows that it makes more economic sense to give up profits in favor of wages: ‘In the fifties, sixties and seventies of the 20th century, profits were relatively lower and wages higher. This led to more economic growth. Now the very rich get richer and the rest poorer. That makes the situation unstable. ‘

Moreover, if the situation after the black death is exemplary, low wages are unsustainable in the long run. “Because even if you have the power,” says Dumolyn, “you can not force people to work endlessly for little money, especially not when life becomes more expensive.” As now, there was significant inflation in the late Middle Ages.

In the century following the plague pandemic, wages rose steadily despite efforts to keep them low: “The urban middle class in particular enjoyed a high wage level in the mid-15th century. We know this because they ate a lot of meat and meat was expensive. ‘

Whether it goes the same way this time, the historian does not want to predict. But better pay, he says, is the most important solution for anyone who needs employees and wants to keep society comfortable: ‘Just increase those wages.’

Lesson 2: Let migrants come and go

Another historical lesson comes from Amsterdam, which experienced tremendous growth in the 17th century. The port city needed sailors, maids and all sorts of workers. Most of these came from outside, says Leo Lucassen, professor of labor and migration history at Leiden University and director of the International Institute of Social History.

Lucassen cites the example of the Dutch East India Company, VOC. He constantly needed sailors to man ships: ‘In the 17th and 18th centuries, a total of one million people enlisted in the VOC. Not everyone left Amsterdam, but many did. ‘ Too few men were born in the city to fill the ships, so half of those on board came from abroad, for example from Scandinavia and the German Empire.

View of the Oost-Indisch Zeemagazijn and the VOC shipyard at Oostenburg in Amsterdam.  Statue of Joseph Mulder

View of the Oost-Indisch Zeemagazijn and the VOC shipyard at Oostenburg in Amsterdam.Statue of Joseph Mulder

Lucassen: ‘To have enough workers, Amsterdam chose an open-door policy for newcomers for two centuries. It was possible then, because in the 17th century, cities decided on that kind. Migration was not a national matter. ‘

Immigration was crucial to Amsterdam’s economy, and according to Lucassen, there is a parallel with Holland’s present and future: Newcomers are indispensable to meet the demand for labor.

Some of the current inhabitants are against this and want to keep Holland ‘Dutch’. This is not a new phenomenon either: in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s open door policy sometimes led to anger towards newcomers. “It just hasn’t become a political issue. Amsterdam was not a democracy. The city was ruled by an elite of rulers who ignored that anger. So there was no room to mobilize it politically.

In addition, new arrivals were received differently than today: ‘Migrants from outside the EU who are allowed to stay here are given rights, for example for benefits. As a result, there is a fear that a flexible migration policy could undermine the welfare state. ‘ This fear was not a problem in 17th century Amsterdam because the social safety net was not much, especially for newcomers. The poorest of the poor could get some help from churches or synagogues, but otherwise migrants were mostly left to fend for themselves. ‘It could change if you were longer in the city and, for example, joined a guild that helped financially in difficult times.’

Maybe we can learn from that model, says Lucassen: Be flexible when people come here, but give them access to social rights gradually and in stages. “Then migrants will no longer have to risk their lives to cross borders, as is now happening. And they can come and go, depending on their employment. ‘

The Amsterdam system also had its drawbacks, notes Lucassen: ‘It proved particularly good for the wealthy upper class, who could always get people to work for them. There was also a large underclass that was poorly paid. People in the 17th century did not find this a problem, because according to them, differences were a part of life. But we would find the poverty of that time unacceptable now. ‘ According to Lucassen, the new arrivals must therefore be secured against too low wages and utilization.

null Image Getty, Editing Studio

Image Getty, Editing Studio

Lesson 3: The Acquired Right to Part-Time Work Does Not Just Abandon Staff

Is there anything to gain from part-time employees? The Dutch are more likely to work part-time than the rest of Europe. And if part-time employees work several hours, it can save a sip on a drink, or so it sounds here and there.

But historian Timon de Groot does not expect major changes in that regard. He researched the history of part-time work at Utrecht University and saw how part-time work became a valued privilege, deeply rooted in the Dutch way of working.

Part-time work was once thought of as a solution to labor shortages, he explains: ‘In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a need for many workers in, for example, nursing. Nursing was then seen as a women’s profession, but there were few women working outside the home. This had to do with the breadwinner ideal: It was the norm for men to make money and women to stay home, especially if they were married and had children. That ideal had emerged during the 19th century and was at its height in the 1950s and 1960s. It was seen as an achievement that women could devote themselves completely to their families. ‘

In order to solve the ‘lack of women’, as it was called at the time, careful attempts were made in the 1960s with part-time work. It took a little getting used to, for example in hospitals. Full-time work was standard there, because otherwise the patients constantly saw new faces. According to management, this was undesirable.

The medical team that assisted Crown Princess Beatrix during the birth of her son Willem-Alexander.  Image Getty Images

The medical team that assisted Crown Princess Beatrix during the birth of her son Willem-Alexander.Image Getty Images

In addition, rules stood in the way: ‘Part-time work was seen as a bonus, not as a real job,’ says De Groot. ‘Therefore, part-time employees earned less per hour than people with a full-time job and did not earn a pension, for example.’

That changed in the 1970s, when retailers sought staff and saw part-time women as a solution. ‘At the time, employers’ and employers ‘organizations were striving for part-time work to become a full-fledged alternative to a full-time job with the same rules.’

When these adjustments were made, the labor market was turned upside down: in the early 1980s, there was no shortage but a surplus of workers. “Then part-time work became a panacea to tackle unemployment,” says De Groot. “Jobs were divided so that two people could do the work instead of one. There was also a reduction in working hours to create more jobs. ‘

Part-time work was thus firmly anchored, to the satisfaction of many part-time employees: “It has become an achievement that they do not just give up. In addition, many employees are no longer able to work at all. A quarter of part-time employees are between 15 and 25 years old. It is primarily pupils and students who earn something in the supermarket or restaurant industry, and who have to continue in school.

“In other sectors, such as healthcare, it can be difficult to get a full-time schedule. This may need to be changed so that part-time work becomes a real choice again, as was once the intention ‘.

But it is still a long way from solving the shortage of employees, says De Groot, because despite the Dutch preference for part-time work, there are also many sectors where full-time work is the standard: ‘As in construction, e.g. example and there is a large deficit. So much more is happening than part-time work. ‘

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