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Monday, 19 August 2013

Reaction to the Op-Ed of Minister Lodewijk Asscher about diminishing the free traffic of labour within Europe: ‘I understand your point, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater’

Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA; Dutch labour) is the Dutch Minister of Social Affairs and vice-PM in the cabinet Mark Rutte II.

Asscher was a bright, intelligent and eloquent social-democrat alderman in the city of Amsterdam before he was called for ‘duty’ in The Hague. Since then, his star has somewhat started to fade. Although he can be considered as one of the relative ‘stars’ in this bleak and weak cabinet, his profile during the last year has been too low and his policy has been too non-descript, to make a lasting impression.

This was a consequence of the weak and ‘cowardly’ government agreement wherein the liberal-conservative VVD and the social-democrate PvdA never made real choices. Instead the ‘architects behind the cabinet’, Mark Rutte and Diederik Samsom, have played the card game ‘quartet’: “This one is for you. This one is for me. This one is for you…”.

Here I quote some of my own lines in November 2012:

The whole government agreement is very schizophrenic on the Dutch economy.

The PvdA aims at green, green, green. This is hardly surprising, as Diederik Samson has been heavily involved with Greenpeace in the not too distant past. Topics as durability, green energy and electric vehicles are omnipresent in the lines that have clearly been written by Diederik Samsom. Also the lines upon the banking industry are clearly from his hand.

The VVD is strongly into entrepreneurship of especially the Small and Medium Enterprises and sees Schiphol and Rotterdam as the answer to every economic question. Foreign policy seems exclusively aimed to protect the interests of Dutch people and companies abroad. The platitudes on promoting human rights and the international legal order seem very out of place here.

Non of the aforementioned lines carry a real sense of urgency on the Dutch economy, except for the fact that (to put it simply in my own words): ‘austerity is necessary to get the state budget in order. When the state budget is finally in order the economy will start to grow by itself’. Hallelujah!

The lack of  real, even painful choices made by the cabinet and the blatant lack of any vision on the future by Rutte and his peers, made it probably impossible for Asscher to shine in the past ten months. He had to keep ‘the shop open’ and the development of wages had to be very limited with him at the helm: that was all he had to do. Nothing else…

Yesterday, Asscher made clear that he had not totally forgotten about his social-democrat roots. In combination with the British publicist and writer David Goodhart, he has published an Op-Ed in the Dutch Volkskrant and the British Independent about the free traffic of labour within the European Union.
Their point: the total freedom of labour traffic within the European Union threatens to push the poorest and worst educated workers within the Western European countries into unemployment and/or poverty, due to the large influx of cheap labour from the former Eastern Block countries.

Here are the pertinent snips of their Op-Ed:

The combined EU should take care of the negative aspects of the free traffic of workers, according to Minister Lodewijk Asscher and publicist David Goodhart.

In The Netherlands, a ‘Code Orange’ is submitted when the water in the rivers reaches an alarmingly high level. It is now time for a similar alarm, concerning the negative consequences of the free traffic of persons (workers) within the European Union. We have to watch out: at some places the dikes are at the brink of a breakthrough.

The free traffic of workers within the EU has advantages for most people. It is in the interest of our economies, especially for the segment of professions, which demand highly trained professionals. In these professions, the contours of a European labour market are visible. Besides that, the free traffic of labour within Europe is justifiably seen as one of the pillars of the European ideal. We would not like to see this pillar being broken down, as a consequence of diminishing support among the population.

The right to live and work in other EU-countries is one of the basic principals behind the Treaty of Rome of 1957. This right was hardly used until halfway the 2000’s. In the year 2000, only 0.1% of all European citizens lived in another EU-country.
That changed in 2004, when the UK, Sweden and Ireland waived their rights for a transition period and immediately opened their labour market for the new member-states in Mid- and Eastern Europe. In especially the United Kingdom, this had a dramatic effect: in the six years afterwards no less than 1.5 mln people arrived from these countries. Since 2011, about the same happened in Germany and The Netherlands, when these countries opened their doors for the new-comers.

In hindsight, there has been too little attention for the size of these influxes. With the entry of the Mid- and Eastern European countries, a group of countries entered – with combined 80 million inhabitants – with an average income that was about one quarter of the income in the richer (Western) European countries.

This has been an enormous stimulus for a (temporary) migration from their countries to Western Europe, especially for the people looking for low-qualified labour. This had a devastating effect on a part of the poorer and less educated citizens in the richer EU-countries.

It is now time to come to a new agreement, which is fair for people from the ‘sending’ as well as the ‘receiving’ countries. And it is time to stop abuse. Workers from poorer EU-countries are sometimes abused by consciousless employers, who get a competitive edge towards their competitors, who play by the rules. Too often these workers receive too little money (sometimes below the legal minimum wage rate), they work too long hours and they pay too much rent for extremely poor dwellings.

Even if the system has not been openly abused, there is still a sort of competition and displacement of native workers, which can be considered as unfair, especially in times of high unemployment. At the labour market our weakest citizens lose against better educated and skilled people from elsewhere.

It is useless to treat their complaints as the usual ‘nagging about foreigners’. It is a recognizable reflex, which we yet should take seriously. Otherwise it poisons the atmosphere and triggers possibly outbursts of hatred against strangers.

In my opinion, this is a must-read article of which I – unfortunately – could not translate everything, as this would take too much time (I advise non-Dutch readers to look up this article in the Independent. This is what I also should have done, instead of translating the article - EL).

I do agree that this is indeed a problem in some aspects. Especially the abuse of low-paid and (sometimes) helpless workers from Eastern Europe can be very brutal:

That not everything is well in The Netherlands as well, proves the story on a Dutch female vegetable grower that was accused of executing the practice of ‘modern slavery’.

Her vegetable-growing farm, specialized in growing asparagus, was situated in a very isolated spot in the province of Brabant. It was mainly run by Polish and Portuguese personnel, under extremely poor working and living circumstances.

The people:
  • had their passports taken away from them;
  • worked for 7 days a week and much more than 8 hours per day;
  • encountered physical violence and threats from the owner or her straw men;
  • were stored in very small multi-person bedrooms, without proper kitchen and hygienic facilities;
  • were charged more than €50 per person per week for these facilities;
  • didn’t get proper nutrition;
  • were fobbed off with petty advances on their salary, while being promised that their real salary would be paid very soon;
  • The lady used a Polish straw man to keep the Polish personnel on the job and to suppress resistance;
  • that didn’t want to work, lost the job and the money they already earned;
  • that wanted to leave the farm, lost the job and the money they already earned; 
And a lot of Dutch and English (hands-on) factory-workers and truck-drivers (for instance) could complain with good reasons that their jobs have been taken away by Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian truck-drivers and factory-workers, who earn less money and don’t complain about working long, long hours in their job, under sometimes unfavourable circumstances.

Still, we must be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater:

  • Why did the agricultural industry always have so many problems to fullfil their vacant posts, even in the toughest times of economic hardship?
  • Why were there always(!) vacancies in the milk-factory, where I worked as a student and afterwards, in spite of the good working hours, the great working atmosphere and the excellent salary?!
  • Why is the cleaning and facilitary services industry almost the exclusive domain of African, Arab and East-European workers?!
  • Why were so many factory-owners so happy, when the borders went finally open for Eastern European workers?! Not only, because these people demanded less money! 
I am afraid that the answer to the aforementioned questions is very simple in most circumstances: because the Dutch and British people often don’t want to do these heavy and dirty jobs anymore. And because most native workers in these countries are less motivated and less qualified for these jobs.

Every now and then the discussion rises: it is strange that we hire people from Eastern and Southern Europe (Spaniards, Portuguese!), while we have so many unemployed people here. Should we not…?!

No, we shouldn’t!

Especially in the agricultural industry, bad and unmotivated employees can ruin large parts of the harvest, by damaging fruit and vegetables. An unmotivated (unemployed) Dutch worker is worse than a disaster: he asks top-dollar for his work, works badly and damages his end-product, which costs the entrepreneur money.

Here are some snips from an article from 2011 on the same subject:

Instead the Dutch unemployed people must do the jobs these Rumanian and Bulgarian workers can´t do anymore: harvesting crops in greenhouses and on farmland (strawberries, blackberries, grapes, asparagus, potatoes or flowers) and other heavy, labor-intensive and often dirty jobs. With the kindest regards of the Dutch government.

As inquiring minds will have guessed already: the Dutch unemployed DON´T want to do these jobs. A Dutch greenhouse farmer told on Dutch television with tears in his eyes that he got fifty forms of potential Dutch job applicants from the employment office, but NONE of them showed up for a job interview. He is now stuck in the situation that he is not allowed to hire his last-year Rumanian and Bulgarian workers and he doesn´t have enough workers to harvest his crop within two weeks. And with harvesting crops it is: do it the right way at the right time, or get burned litterally!

Even if you force unemployed people to accept these jobs, they might have a thousand ways to screw up. Squashed strawberries, broken asparagus or apples with brown spots, due to harsh handling. Every glasshouse worker can tell you that unmotivated workers are worse than useless, as they ruin their harvest and diminish their yields. You could take the welfare away from Dutch unemployed workers that won´t do these jobs, but nobody in The Netherlands will find that acceptable. It´s sad, but true.

So what should Lodewijk Asscher do?! My answer: his job!!!

See to it that Dutch employers in every industry:
  • play by the rules of white, properly taxed and decently-paid labour;
  • don’t evade the regulations about legal minimum wages and wage-payments in collective labour agreements;
  • don’t abuse people from Eastern and Southern Europe and keep them under bad working and living circumstances;
  • don’t force people to waive their rights for membership of a union and legal representation;
  • give every applicant a fair chance, by treating everybody equally, without making a difference between colour, race, country of origin and religion. 

Although Asscher cannot personally look after it that everybody in The Netherlands get a fair treatment, it is the task of (a.o.) his ministry of Social Affairs to check this regularly.

Too often, cabinets with VVD and CDA (Christian-Democrat) representatives in it have neglected their supervising tasks and left it to ‘the market’ and ‘self-regulation’ to fight abuse and underpayment. Too often cabinets and politicians have looked the other way, when it came to abuse of people!

Therefore I demand that Lodewijk Asscher takes this duty seriously!

And there is one more point where almost all cabinets within the last thirty years have let the Dutch citizens down: education. The Dutch people deserve better education.

Not so much at the level of scientific or high vocational education. The Dutch universities and colleges are fine. PhD-studies and MBA-studies in The Netherlands leave little to be desired in common. The same is probably true for Great Britain.

No, it has been the lower, professional education for technical and handicraft jobs, which left a lot to be desired over the last twenty years. 

So often, there has been too much emphasis on computer and language education and too little on training people to work with their hands for jobs, like:
  • mason;
  • metal worker;
  • plumber;
  • electrical engineer;
  • welder;
  • carpenter;
  • pipefitter; 
It is no wonder that these jobs are often so desperately sought for and that the often highly skilled workers from Eastern Europe were more than welcome in The Netherlands and (probably) Great Britain.

And about the free traffic of labour within Europe?! That has indeed always been the main pillar of the EU. And although I don’t deny that this free traffic can have some serious drawbacks, we should consider very thorougly whether we should reduce/restrict it for low-qualified labour or not.
People have always travelled around the world, looking for a better place to stay, live and work. That is an undeniable human right, in my humble opinion.

Besides that, the supply of labour and the amount of vacancies in various countries work like communicating vessels: people move to the places and countries with the most available labour and possibilities to develop themselves. When the jobs in a city or country are fulfilled and there is no more labour available, then the people begin to move to other places by themselves.

Maybe the Dutch lower-qualified and unemployed workers could take a lesson from their enthusiastic peers from Eastern and Southern Europe: people who are willing to leave their safe homes for an uncertain future abroad. 

Maybe it’s time for them to become a little more adventurous again! 

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