Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Interview: Maarten Tanja - Partnet at Köster Advocaten - Flexwork specialist
I always cringe when I hear someone commenting their market share. Loosing or gaining market share, having not enough or too much, suggests that a market is a finite and static economic space one can conquer and occupy and on which we all compete for domination, in a world of scarcity. It presents markets as a resource and suggests that the goal of a business is to grab as much of that resource as they can. Looking at it in this way is exactly how we got the planet in the state it is in.
I think of markets as an infinite, ever changing set of opportunities to serve humanity. In this realm, market share has no meaning, because you may have a large share of something and serve in fact very little. For example, we can calculate that the American prison system has a 3% share of the US mental health market [i], but does it serve? Google has 96.1% of the Brazilian online search market in 2019, but does it serve?
Approaching economic life with the idea to serve then, changes considerably the way we go about things. Instead of being market users, we become market stewards. We don’t conquer, we transform and care for them. I imagine you will object that this is all moonlight and roses… reverie of an economic idealist. How about we hear what Maarten Tanja has to say about it then?
Maarten is a lawyer. Those who have (like me) followed the adventures of the frighteningly self-confident Harvey Specter in the series Suits [ii], may have built a prejudiced conception of lawyers as raving workaholic powermongers. Being welcomed by Maarten in his office at Köster Advocaten brings it all back to a sensible reality. One can almost always count on the Dutch for being sensible, except maybe when it comes to football. Of course, Köster Advocaten (KADV) provides its employees and customers with comfortable digs of the best Dutch classic style, in the decidedly uber fashionable city of Haarlem. Of course, there is a serious atmosphere and the pace of life doesn’t quite compare to that of a Yoga school. But Maarten himself is very approachable, engaged, and revels in creating personal bonds with his clients.
Maarten studied law at VU Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit) and whilst he acquired some knowledge during this period, it all felt rather devoid of an inspiring purpose. Thus, he had to painfully drag himself through the first three years. But circumstances, meddlesome as they are, took care of putting him on the way. A back injury meant that he had to leave his shelves-stocking job at a supermarket, for something that did not solicit his back quite as much. The interim agency where he had posted his CV, noticing that he could talk a good game (Ok, maybe he has that one thing in common with Harvey Specter) ended up employing him in their own finance department, calling debtors to collect cash. This was his first contact with the temp staffing sector. His following student job was by ABU, one of the two main temp staffing employer organisations in the Netherlands [iii]. There he manned a helpdesk and found himself answering many questions with a legal background. The virus caught.
As Maarten discovered, under a somewhat tame appearance, temp staffing (Uitzending, flex or flexwerk for the Dutch) is a fascinating world. Always a step ahead of other industries, its health is an early indicator of macro-economic trends. Cyclical, with short margins and complex compliance requirements, frequently upset by the regulator, temp staffing businesses carve their niche in a world that sometimes does not love them quite as much as it should.
Was it a taste for the underdog, or a belief that there was much in there that was worth serving for? Whatever it was, it woke up Maarten’s appetite. At the end of his third year at university, he applied for a policy adviser job at ABU, for which he competed against experienced candidates. But since he knew the house, and was evidently passionate about it, ABU gave him his chance. Maarten put his studies on pause and went to work.
For four years he had mentors instead of professors, answered customer questions and wrote policy opinions in place of exam papers, and found gratification in hard work, which until then had not been his thing. In his fourth year at ABU, heeding the advice of his mentors, Maarten took the time to finish his studies and passed his final exams without much difficulty.
He then thought about becoming a barrister and in the Netherlands that meant first finding a law firm who would employ him [iv]. Fifteen years ago, Dutch law firms had Labour Law practices of course, but you would have been hard-pressed to find one that had a dedicated temp staffing department, and that was obviously a problem for ABU, an organisation with hundreds of adherents, together realising around 770,000 temp worker placements yearly. Anticipating his departure, the director and adjunct director at ABU suggested to Maarten that he set up the first Flex team where he went. Soliciting his network, Maarten quickly found a place. All ABU members were de-facto his potential clients, and many who knew him already were ready to make him work. So, there is Maarten walking through the doors at KADV, with a new activity to propose, clients ready to pay for his services, and the youthful enthusiasm of his 25 springs. Any employer would have liked the optics of this, KADV sure did.
The magic of apprenticeship is the special bond that you get to form with your mentors. During this period, four people earned a special place in Maarten’s personal pantheon. He recalls:
"Jurriën Koops, free spirited and visionary and Aart van der Gaag, inspiring and with sharp commercial acumen [v] at ABU, Willem Plessen [vi], professor at Tilburg university, passionate and very demanding on content quality and Annemarie Muntz [vii] very driven, intense and passionate about flex work".
With these professionals (And many others), Maarten carved his niche, and since 2006, the Flex team at KADV has grown to 4 lawyers, represents around 200 clients, and is known as the best specialist of this sector in the country. In the meantime, other firms have also embraced this focus, and a community of specialist has formed around it. Maarten loves the emulation of a competitive market, where the presence of others in the same sector only helps you to grow sharper and better. He is also convinced that together with colleagues of the other firms they can care for a market that grows, that embraces more aspects, that provides more opportunities for all, instead of tearing each other apart for market share. The scarcity or abundance of opportunities is not circumstantial, it’s created together not in spite of competition, but beyond it.
Because beyond it, is the health of the Dutch labour market. Temporary employment provides much-needed flexibility on labour markets all around the world. For many politicians however, flexibility is a dirty word, associated with precarious living. Some would like nothing more than to restrict it as much as they can, considering temp work as second zone employment. Some sad cases may lend credence to that theory [viii], but for Maarten,
"letting a minority of shady shops define the entire sector is throwing the baby out with the bathwater [ix]".
Everyone is forced however to recognize that interim work fulfils important purposes. First it increases the labour market accessibility for people who do not present straightforward profiles or skillsets. The low employability threshold of temp staffing businesses makes the whole country benefit from workers who otherwise might simply have lived (not very well) on subsidies.
"Staffing businesses also help workers reskill when the market shifts. In the knowledge economy such a function has never been more needed".
In short, all labour markets are imperfect. There are surpluses of talent in some areas, and shortages in others. At the fringes of the market where demand/offer tensions rise, flexwork is the adjustment variable that turns labour market tectonic changes into manageable jolts. And because of its ability to quickly position workers against demand, they also end up employing people who may otherwise not find any work at all, thus providing a much-needed social lift mechanism, through education and qualification.
Maarten laments the lack of sophistication with which regulations work around the flexwork sector. A staffing business takes one of three forms (temporary placement - uitzending, detached placement - detachering, or payroll placement - payroll), and regulations enforce the restrictive cadre of temporary placement, which does not really adapt well to detached placement and payroll.
In the end, for Maarten, one of the key hindrances to the flexwork sector, is that labour law was only ever designed on the assumption of an employee/employer relationship, never for triangular situations that are the hallmark of staffing. Now working towards a PhD, his thesis on “The business of work” will highlight how the specificities of flex-work relations do indeed deserve their own treatment, and no doubt, offer some solutions.
Maarten’s motto, akin to that of the Chinese doctor, is that if clients come to see him to sort out a problem, then it’s too late, he has not done his work well enough. He is not in the cure business; he is in the prevention and care business, and our conversation reveals his demanding understanding of this discipline.
My late father often said, “all things belong to whom makes them better”. I think this applies well to Maarten, and following this adage, I do not doubt that his share of the Dutch flexible labour market is... 100%
[i] In 2005, there were about 2.2 million inmates in the US, of which about 1.2 million were reportedly suffering from a form of mental illness. At that time, mental illness prevalence in the US population as a whole was about 19%, that means 47.9 million people, of which therefore 3% where inmates.
[ii] Premiered on June 23rd 2011, written and created by Aaron Korsh. For reference: imdb
[iii] ABU and NBBU are the two employer organisations negotiating labour agreements with unions in the temporary work branch in the Netherlands.
[iv] The Dutch barrister training is rooted in practice. In the Netherlands the road to becoming a barrister starts with finding a law firm to employ you. Thereafter, barristers are sworn in by the court and considered as fully authorized. They however must stay employed (And mentored) by said law firm for at least three years, follow a specific curriculum at the same time, and satisfy a number of requirements laid down by the bar association. Once all of this is done, they can, if they so wish, start their own practice.
[vi] Willem Plessen worked for 19 years at Randstad, and for the past 23 years has been teaching at university.
[vii] Annemarie Muntz has more than 30 years of experience in the flex sector, and is currently MD group public affairs at Randstad.
[viii] Because of the prevalence of less-skilled workers, and/or migrant workers in certain temps staffing markets, some staffing employers abuse the flexwork legal cadre to provide extremely cheap labour. This problem is at the root of the somewhat unequal reputation of the sector in the Netherlands. It drove the sector itself to adopt verification mechanisms such as the SNCU, which verifies that interim businesses abide by conditions determined in collective agreements, or the SNA which created and submitted a norm to the Dutch standardization authority, the NEN 4400-1, to uphold the quality of administration in staffing organisations. The regulator also contributes to introduce orthodoxy in practices, for example with chain liability for employment charges.
[ix] Depending on what is taken in account, the interim/flex-work sector is estimated between 21 and 35 billion euros in the Netherlands…