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Monday, 28 January 2013

Working in the age of the credit crisis can be much harder than a few years ago.

Last week, the Dutch federation of labour unions 'FNV' came with a complaint against the largest supermarket chain Albert Heijn. The FNV claimed that the labour circumstances in the distribution centers of the supermarket chain left a lot to be desired, especially for workers of foreign descent. Workers would be put under enormous pressure to meet their production targets. They would also be intimidated if they complained about the circumstances.

Business radio station BNR had an interview with Ron Meijer of FNV Bondgenoten, the largest labour union in The Netherlands. Here are the pertinent snips of the resulting article:

The FNV comes with a serious complaint against Albert Heijn. The labour circumstances in the distribution centers of the supermarket chain are far from normal.
Employees are forced to meet their production targets. Who complains, will be intimidated. For instance, employees who wanted to take a few days off, heard from their foremen that they didn’t have to come back at all, if they did so. Especially Polish temporary workers go reputedly through a hard time at Albert Heijn.

The union collected the complaints in a black book. Ron Meijer of FNV Bondgenoten: “we used to know Albert Heijn as a friendly and cozy supermarket, but reality bites. Especially the temporary workers are intimidated and boosted.

The bottom-line is that people have to work, tow and carry for at least 425 minutes per day. This number has doubled in size during the last ten years. This can partially be explained with ‘working smarter, instead of harder’, but for the larger part it is caused by people being boosted to work harder”.

An important factor, according to Meijer, is the circumstance that 1 in 4 Dutch workers currently has a non-secure contract. “The labour union does not mind what the nationality of the complainer is and how long he will stay in The Netherlands. What is important, however, is how AH treats half of its personnel by applying this behaviour. This is also influencing the other half of their personnel, as people with fixed contracts realize that this situation might not last forever anymore. They also feel intimidated. It is not just about the Polish temporary workers.”

This is not the first complaint against Albert Heijn, that has been subject to public discussion during the last few years. Reputedly, Albert Heijn often hires very young personnel as cashiers and shop-assistants and dismisses them a few years later when they become ´too old´ and thus too expensive. However, I don’t have any kind of proof of these practices.

Many young teenagers started their working career as a shop-assistant or shelf re-stocker at Albert Heijn. My niece and nephews are among those youngsters and I never heard bad stories about AH from their mouths.

Also in the case of the FNV complaint, we must be careful to not start a witch hunt against AH. When you want to work in a distribution center, you know that it is hard and heavy work, often under time pressure from the foremen, the managers and (very important) your own colleagues.

Nobody likes colleagues who are constantly cutting corners, making too much mistakes and leave the heavy work to their colleagues. And yes, when the trucks need to be loaded in time, there can be a lot of pressure from the foremen indeed. Pressure to not take a day off, for instance. It is not good, but this is how it goes in organizations with much manual labour. This makes it often very hard to judge when an organization goes or does not go beyond the limit of good employership.

Besides that, we should remember that the FNV, who published this blackbook, is an organization in transition. It is currently looking for a reason to exist, after years of neglect concerning ´the old labour´ of labour unions. The federative FNV had become a powerful, totally politicized lobby-organization with large political influence, which had been speaking with employers and (national) politicians on a very high abstraction level.

From ‘steeled workers’ who were 24/7 ready for action, they turned into desk-jockeys that were wearing suits and lost most of the contact with their (diminishing) grassroots. That might have been good for the Dutch economy and employability, but it had been killing for the credibility of the FNV.

After last year’s near-implosion of the FNV federation, its federation members, like ‘FNV Bondgenoten’, are desperately looking to put themselves back on the map again. Alarming press stories and free radio publicity, like in the case of the Albert Heijn blackbook, might help in this process. This is a reason to look at news like this with a cautious eye.

As a youngster in the late eighties and early nineties, I spent (in total) a very pleasant year as temporary/holiday worker at Campina Melkunie, a large dairy company in The Netherlands. I loved the hard work and the companionship at the work floor and the feeling of achievement, when the job was done in time and without errors.

However, those could have been different times: working in a distribution center was an extremely well-paid job in those days, because of the bonuses for working in shifts, heavy labour and extra hours that you made on the job.

Just as in other kinds of labour that demand no special education, a race to the bottom started in the distribution centers a few years ago:
·    Workers with fixed contracts have been replaced with temp workers;

·    Dutch workers with their ‘sturdy’ salary demands have been slowly replaced with Polish, Rumanian and Bulgarian workers, who were willing to do the same job for much less money;

·    This development forced Dutch workers also to settle for less money, as they could only receive a temporary contract at a much lower hourly rate;

·    The economic crisis in The Netherlands put an extra edge to things:
o    Jobs became scarcer for people, so having a job was considered a treasured possession. When you had it, you didn’t complain about it, normally;

o    The number of applicants for these kinds of distribution and support services jobs rose at the same time with the influx of workers from Eastern Europe and South(-West) Europe. This made it easier for employers to cherry-pick people;

o    Eastern European workers needed the jobs and didn’t know the people that could help them in case of an argument on the job. “Our way or the highway” could be the difference between having a job and an income and having none. This puts the door wide open for unfair treatment and even abuse of these workers;

o    The battle for margins forced retailers to save every penny in the production and distribution chain;

The current working environment in The Netherlands is not per sé a good one for healthy and fair job circumstances. This is the reason that I would not be surprised when the complaints, collected by the FNV, are largely valid after all. The difficult economic situation can force employers to state against their workers: “You have a job, so be happy about that. If you don’t like it, ten others will!”.

These are exactly the circumstances where government bodies, like the Labour Inspection and the Dutch internal revenue service or the labour unions have an important task: protecting workers in an increasingly ‘hostile’ environment.

Let’s hope that these people have the time and the means to do this extremely important job. Unfortunately, this might not be expected from the current, business-oriented cabinet, in spite of the participation of the Dutch labour party PvdA.

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