PhD candidates distressed by poorer working conditions
The university is increasingly pushing for staff to work on the basis of an annual agreement. This would lead to more freedom and less paperwork, but critics are mostly worried about poorer working conditions. ‘This shouldn’t be legal.’
Vincent Bongers and Anoushka Kloosterman
Monday 13 February 2023

Coming in to work whenever you want, going on holiday without the boss' permission and planning your own working schedule, as long as you get the job done: that is what employees who have a so-called annual agreement signed up for. But this freedom comes with major drawbacks, and not everyone is aware of them when they sign.

The University Council is highly critical of the regulation and has issued a survey to raise the matter with the Executive Board.

The collective labour agreement stipulates that annual agreements - or function-based contracts, in collective labour agreement terminology - may be utilised for academics and all other staff starting from salary scale 11. In an ideal situation, it offers greater freedom and reduces bureaucratic hassle.  ‘You make agreements with your employer about the work you’ll be doing over the course of the year’, says Max van Haastrecht, PhD candidate at the LIACS, member of the University Council on behalf of PhD candidate party PhDoc and one of the initiators of the survey. ‘Requesting holidays is no longer necessary. In theory, you're free to go whenever you want. This reduces the administrative burden.’

But there are some drawbacks to it as well: ‘People often don’t know what they’re signing up for because they’re not properly informed about the implications. I don’t think you should put employees in that position.’


The most significant implication is that there are no more vacation hours. ‘In practice, that proves problematic. You can’t save them up and use them later. This is taking rights away from employees. After all, this is primarily a way to avoid having to register vacation days.’

That would not be a problem if everyone took enough time off. However, in reality, this is not the case; not by a long shot. ‘In principle, you can decide for yourself when you don’t come in. In practice, you have to coordinate that with colleagues and superiors, of course. People aren’t necessarily being pressured by their employer to take less time off, but the tendency not to do so is stronger.

‘Things can go wrong if, for example, you’re a PhD candidate who doesn’t have a good relationship with your supervisor. If you’re asked to change your holiday plans, the system doesn’t register that you’re not taking enough days off.

Those working on the basis of an annual agreement effectively have poorer working conditions than other employees. Without vacation hours, you also have fewer resources left to use for the university’s so-called ‘Terms of Employment Individual Choices Model’: this allows you to exchange, for example, vacation hours or salary for other benefits like a higher travel allowance.


Nevertheless, the annual agreements are becoming the norm rather than the exception. ‘Initially, lecturers, assistant professors, and others are told a nice story: “Sign an annual agreement, that way you can choose your own holidays, and there’s no hassle”’, says Arnout van Ree, lecturer at Humanities and FNV official at the university. ‘I’ve also had an annual agreement myself, after hearing that story. That has now been converted. Annual agreements assume that it’s always possible to take vacation hours, but in practice, that is often not the case. As a lecturer, you don’t have the freedom to set your own holidays. You teach a course, and when the course is finished, you can leave.’

According to the Executive Board, it is supposed to be an exception, says Van Ree. ‘It may be against the Executive Board's wishes, but it is currently happening at the faculties and institutes.’

'We got the impression that it was just a way to save money'

In 2021, an e-mail circulated at the Institute of Biology Leiden in which the institute board encouraged staff to sign an annual agreement because not enough people were taking holidays and it would reduce the administrative burden: ‘We advise everyone to sign an annual agreement to make everyone's life easier.’
At the time, PhD candidate Jelmer van Lieshout deliberately chose not to sign such an agreement. ‘We got the impression that it was just a way to save money, yet it was being presented as if it would benefit us.’ He has no figures to prove it, but estimates that about half of the PhD candidates at the institute have an annual agreement. ‘It doesn’t have to be a bad deal per se: if you have a good relationship with your supervisor, it can offer you freedom.’ However, some groups experience a high workload as well as pressure to take as few vacation hours as possible.’


This is confirmed by a PhD candidate at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research who wishes to remain anonymous. ‘The LACDR, among other university departments, wants employees to sign an annual agreement. We got the proposal to sign an annual plan. Or its official name:  Leiden University Regulation on Annual Agreements. You make agreements with your supervisor about taking holidays. After that, it comes down to the trust between the employee and their immediate superior. It increases stress for PhD candidates. You’re already working more than the forty hours specified in your contract. The pressure to keep working and not take holiday leave increases.

‘The university has to pay out accrued hours once you complete your PhD. Of course, that poses a financial problem, because PhD candidates don’t take a lot of holiday leave. That money isn’t there, and that's one of the reasons why they're pushing for these annual agreements: take as much time off as you want, but we won’t have to pay you when your contract expires.

'I would at least abolish it for PhD candidates and postdocs'

‘They want me to sign, but I'm not sure if I’m going to. There are many drawbacks, but I also don't want a bad relationship with my supervisor. I understand my superiors’ perspective but I don’t think the human resources department should allow this. This is taking a step backwards in terms of working conditions. There’s a reason why vacation hours are included in employment contracts. PhD candidates are already under a lot of stress, so it’s very important to take enough time off. As far as I’m concerned, this shouldn’t be legal.’

And without an overview of holidays taken, superiors are sawing off the branch they're sitting on, says Van Ree. ‘If someone doesn’t take any holiday leave, chances of burnout increase. If a superior sees this, they should initiate a conversation - even though it might be unpleasant. But it’s also a rational choice, because someone who gets sick costs them more money.’

He refers to a 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice, which stated that an employer is obligated to ensure that employees are able to take holidays. ‘The employer has a duty of care’, says Van Ree.

In fact, unions want to remove the entire regulation from the new collective labour agreement. ‘We want to get rid of it’, says Van Ree. ‘It never should have made it into the collective labour agreement in the first place.’ Van Haastrecht: ‘I realise that some employees like the arrangement, but I would at least abolish it for PhD candidates and postdocs.’

Negotiations on the collective labour agreement are now ongoing. The University Council’s survey is likely to be published at the end of February.