Toespraak staatssecretaris De Krom van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid op het ‘European Transgender Participation Symposium’, op 26 oktober bij het Da Vinci College in Dordrecht
Ladies and gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure, and consider it a great privilege, to welcome you here today to this symposium. I would like to thank the organisers for the invitation to open today’s event. It really is a great honour for me. I must apologise though for having to leave shortly to attend the weekly Friday’s cabinet meeting. But I simply did not want to miss out on the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you. It is, after all, a subject that goes to the very core of my liberal heart.
This symposium, organised by the Transgender Network Netherlands, is an excellent initiative. The word “participation” in today’s symposium title is key to me. Participation – or, in other words, being a full-functioning and appreciated member of society—is vital for each individual’s personal development, independence, self-reliance, responsibility, friendship and a sense of purpose in life. And much of that comes through work.
Work is a major artery in all our lives. We often identify ourselves with our job. You don’t do the work of a police officer. You are a police officer. In this way, your job becomes part of your identity. You are what you do. Therefore it is crucial that each individual’s identity has room to express itself in the workplace.
Sadly, this is not always the case. Far too often people are bullied or discriminated against by their colleagues. This is not a new, but nevertheless still a disturbing observation. Just consider the figures. According to recent reports by the Dutch research institutes TNO and Statistics Netherlands, no less than 650,000 people in the Netherlands indicate they are sometimes victims of bullying at work. 100,000 employees even indicate they are bullied on a regular basis.
Personally, I just fail to understand why people judge others on the basis of who they are or where they come from, rather than on what they do and how they contribute. Just consider indeed: some 100,000 people go to work every day and come home feeling miserable. This should not be allowed to happen.
The key principle should not be who people are or where they came from. Instead, what people do and contribute should count. People are what they do. Regardless their gender or cultural background, and regardless whether they are black, white, purple or pink. What people do and contribute, defines them as individuals. And nothing else! As a liberal, that is my moral compass. An indisputable truth, at least in my book.
But at the same time we have to be realistic. Both you and I know that people are bullied and discriminated against. And not surprisingly, this also leads to absenteeism. To a figure which is also hard to imagine: about 40 million sick leave days. At an estimated cost of about 1.5 billion euros a year.
And this is just an estimate of the material damage. The psychological burden for people concerned can hardly be expressed in facts and figures.
Ladies and gentlemen, these figures give us an insight into a disturbing reality. A reality that must be banished. Preferably today rather than tomorrow.
But I am a realist at the same time. I don’t have a button I can simply press to ban bullying and discrimination from the workplace by tomorrow. Obviously, the Dutch government provides every necessary support to fight the problem. We have introduced all kinds of laws, rules and institutions people can call upon for help and support.
However, more is needed. The real opportunity for change lies within people themselves. Within their hearts and minds. Discrimination is a product of cultural attitudes and beliefs. And you do not fight those just with rules or institutions. Society itself holds the key to the solution.
I was talking about reality. You and I know that people who are considered ‘different’ frequently have to work harder to prove themselves. For them, it’s often an uphill battle to get things done. I greatly admire those who succeed when the odds may seem so heavily stacked against them. Over the years I have met quit a few people like this. They serve as an inspiration to many, including myself. Their example, strength and determination to succeed – despite setbacks - are often more powerful than a thousand rules.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is clear we should not accept that 40 per cent of transgenders do not feel sufficiently confident, secure, or safe to talk openly at work about their gender identity. This may even be a double blow to someone’s individual freedom. Not only may people feel locked in the wrong body, but also locked in to a place where they don’t dare, or are not able to be open about it. This is reflected in a recent survey (by Rutgers WPF) by the Dutch centre of expertise on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Transsexuals, for example, are often unable to keep their identity hidden. Besides undergoing major sex change operations, at the same time they also have to cope with a profound lack of understanding from those around them. Indeed it is not surprising this may lead to absenteeism.
This can also be concluded from a survey carried out by Statistics Netherlands in 2011 on how transsexuals fare in the labour market. Although more than 40 per cent are highly educated, almost three quarters have a low disposable household income. Partly because over 50% live in single households. Even a third depend on social security benefits. And here we’re only talking about those who have registered their sex change with the courts.
We do not know the exact number of transgenders in the Netherlands. Recent estimates by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research suggest it exceeds 48,000. People who, just like everyone else, deserve a safe and challenging place to work.
A good start always is to sit down with managers and colleagues and explain the situation. I realise however that this may be easier said than done. For it requires an environment of openness, understanding and support. Encouragingly however, a new study by the aforementioned SCP – of which the factsheet is made available here today –indicates that those who are open about being transgender, report that their environment “always” or “almost always” responds positively.
Furthermore, progress is being made with the help of trade unions and interest groups. Several companies, such as Accenture, Shell, Philips and ING, have taken the lead and introduced a diversity policy oriented towards transgenders. Earlier this year they signed the ‘Declaration of Amsterdam’; a Workplace Pride initiative. The declaration aims to improve the work environment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Some of these companies are present here today and you will be hearing from them later.
They may have valuable experiences that might be of great use to many of us here today. They may help others adopt practical and effective diversity policies – essential in getting transgenders back to work who are now needlessly stuck at home.
This symposium hopefully offers one of many more opportunities to get down to business and create a practical and effective transgender policy.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to conclude by encouraging all of you to focus on people’s personal strengths, rather than weaknesses. Nobody should allow him or herself to be victimized. Although very often well intended, pity from others won’t get us anywhere. Instead it confirms weaknesses, relieves people of personal responsibilities and puts people aside. It leads to an exclusive, rather than an inclusive working environment where people should be judged on their merits.
Ladies and gentlemen, Everyone deserves to be judged on his or her merits. Everyone must be able to put their skills and qualities to use, irrespective of gender or background. Everyone deserves a future built on his or her own merits. That is the very essence of human dignity.
Ladies and gentlemen, you can count on my full support. Because you have a cause worth fighting for. Because it is right, it is just and it is necessary.
I wish you good luck for now, and a very rewarding symposium in the course of today.
Thank you very much indeed.