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Monday, 15 May 2017

How the free market as ‘panacea for everything’ can work as a poison for the lowest qualified jobs and the people who execute them.

When there is one thing that the neo-liberal/conservative politicians of the last three decades have advocated, it is of course the free market. That has proven to be a genuine panacea for all economical and political diseases.

There is not even the faintest doubt among most national governments in Europe, or among the European Union leadership, that ‘the free market’ is the solution to all problems:
  • When the free market indeed succeeds to improve things in certain economic or social situations or in certain industries, it was obvious, as the 'free market' is THE answer to every economic question.
  • And when the free market fails(!) in certain situations or in certain industries, it was always a question of bad luck, mismanagement or unforeseen circumstances. Or... simply because the market was not free enough and the competition did not play a fair, competitive game.

Well, you know the drill! 

The answer to a failing free market... is administering more free market. Then the symptoms of pending economic and social problems will disappear like snow in the hot sun. It is the 21st Century version of the medieval habit of 'leeching', in case of dangerous illnesses, and virtually everybody believes in its healing force.

There is not the slighest clue among the ‘believers’ that the gospel of the free market could lead to undesirable, totally unfair or straight away absurd situations in the global economy. That’s simply impossible. There is nothing outside the free market and the euro and dollar are its prophets. Amen!

The apostles of the free market believe and defend their gospel with an exasperated energy and an intolerance for contradiction that reminds of the socialist/communist revolutionaries in their finest hours during the early Twentieth Century. Everything that stops, hampers or questions the free market must burn on the holy stakes of the free market evangelists.

The result is that most people ignore the negative side-effects of the free market by simply looking the other way, or consider them as ‘a small price to pay’ for the best economic system there has ever been in the world.

On the electronic highway, a few companies – you definitely know which ones – call nearly all the shots by monopolizing their whole, global line of business and by dredging up nearly all the global advertisement sales with their ubiquitous dragnets, from which nothing and nobody can escape. 

Or by milking their hundreds of millions of customers as ‘information cows’ and by infringing every privacy law in the book, through the application of never-ending and unreadable terms and conditions for usage that – understandably – nobody reads, because normal people don’t even bother to chew through those.

And last, but not least, by hampering their new competitors with takeover threats, useless lawsuits for copyright and patent infringements “because they can”or by hindering their business with useless and complicated conditions for software usage, user certificates and services.

But that’s not all... 

Instead of companies paying the lion share of their taxes in the countries, where most of their customers live and where they earned the majority of their sales revenues, tax avoidance (or evasion) became a global sport for sanctimoneous multinationals with unctuously recorded commercials on TV and the internet. 

Fair tax payment for all (multinational ) companies is replaced by lackluster philantropy and a few odd charity foundations, that seem more in the interest of the executives than in the interest of the people living in the countries were they earn their revenues.

Perhaps the worst thing is that “the free market as we know it today” could turn lower-qualified or even (former) middle-class workers with dignity and a decent future before them, into vassals and serfs-out-of-choice, as there is really no choice for them.

Most well-to-do people are clueless that fair jobs against fair payment could turn into a mirage for people without a fixed contract and with virtually no possibilities to organize themselves, when the free market does its demolishing work.

This weekend I read on two different occasions about the negative side-effects of the free market, with respect to the labour situation.

One ‘letter to the editor’, written by Tamara Ronteltap – an Organizational Purpose Coach – and published by Het Financieele Dagbladcomplained about the now quite common disdain for workers, by seeing them solely as a ‘sustainable means of production’, aka a profit machine:

In the article about the Brexit, Simon Wolfson writes – triggered by the immigration conundrum – that the question at hand is: “Do we see people as an economic asset or as a liability?”

In this vision, the worker is seen as nothing more than an asset for the profit and loss account, irrespective of his alleged positive or negative value.

Also in the article ‘Still ill’, regarding research into continued payment during periods of sickness, the image pops up that the (sick) worker is solely seen as a financial entry in the company’s general ledger, who is – on top of that – incapable of taking his responsibilities in his own hands. The latter is emphasized by the sentence that the ‘ill worker must be actively spurred to resume his work asap’

I definitely get Tamara’s point, as Theory X is having its finest hour in many companies these days, with the mounting distrust of employers in their workers and the resulting urge to control them 24-7. 

Nevertheless, Tamara’s letter was a relatively innocent plea to take better care of companies’ and government workers and don’t treat them as a piece of machinery. Important, but not really shocking or mindboggling.

However, the following must-read article was a shocking example of top-notch investigative journalism by Belgian journalist Michael Dilissen of De, in the best tradition of Günter Wallraf, the famous German writer of ‘Lowest of the Low’:

Dilissen volunteered to work as a day labourer – with one day contracts alone – at what turned out to be international courier DHL, at the Belgian airport Zaventem. He describes how people are treated as vassals (or even serfs) through the usage of an imaginary carrot (i.e. 'a fixed contract) and a very real stick.

I can’t print much more than a few of the most important snippets, but strongly advice you to read the whole article, as it will be worth your while:

They have a lot in common, my new colleagues: an infectuous enthusiasm and an absolute belief in the promised fixed contract, as could be read in the vacancy add.

Before we can walk to our working place, there is a word of the big boss. About the payment and the security rules for temporary workers of DHL.

And then reality bites:

“I want to let you know that what the consultants at the temp agency promised you, is not true. Not everybody will get a fixed contract; this is only for the best of the best. The happy few of the temp workers... So make sure that you get among them by never getting ill, working hard, never complaining, doing extra hours and never being too late!”.

And as if that was not enough: “For the people who are late, we have an efficient method: when you are late once, we’ll keep you at home for one week. This means one week having no job and no income, but all the time in the world for thinking how to get here in time, next time. That is a way of learning a new attitude.”.


It is cold at night in the warehouse. The boxes become heavier by the day. My temporary co-workers don’t seem to care. They think about their fixed contract. Ahmed and Guido have worked with day contracts for several months, while Abdul and Najib received a week contract after four weeks only. Some have high hopes, while others get more frustrated by the day.


Friday is D-day. On Friday all interim workers receive an SMS with the planning for next week. It is a token of prove that you survived yet another week and are part of the game for one more week.

Last week there was a lot of panic. There had been three tours with new loads of candidate-temp workers. New candidates mean undoubtedly that others must take a hike. The effect is unmistakenable. Everybody is working even quicker.


The payments of my interim job are impossible to check. Every time a different amount. Also the others complain of faulty payments. Abdul never received one hour of overtime. Every week Richard and Omar received up to €60 too little in payments. Complaining at the temporary labour agency is virtually impossible. Startpeople calls you with an undisclosed phone number, which makes it impossible to call back. 

The writer Michael Dilissen stated that DHL was just a coincidental example of these opaque and intolerable practices and that probably many more companies use the same tactics of keeping their unorganized, temporary (day)workers on a tight leash, with empty promises and hardly disguised threats.

The sick thing with these kinds of ‘near-slave’ labour is that nobody is really doing something about it, which leaves such a situation festering for years and years. This is the inevitable consequence of the ubiquitously growing disdain and distrust of employers for (fixed contract) workers and the diminishing influence of labour unions, as well as a result of the relentless cutbacks on labour inspection services throughout Europe during the last decades.

One has to realize that in most cases an investigation is only started when one or more people file an official complaint against their temporary employer. However, filing a complaint is the surest way to lose one’s day job and source of income and also the (faint) outlook for a steady job at DHL  or other companies with the same attitude against temporary workers. 

This is a Catch-22 situation, in which abuse of powerless workers by the employers is almost guaranteed.

Things were so different when I was 25 years old and worked at the local ‘Melkunie’ milk factory as a temp worker: payment was great, the atmosphere at the job was great and foremen, bosses and managers were friendly and understanding towards their workers. Some of my fondest memories were created during my working hours at the milk factory.

Workers even enjoyed one paid(!) break during working hours and good meals could be acquired at very reasonable prices. And last, but not least: there was always a warm welcome for temporary workers, who wanted to return to the job after some time away. 

Even physically or mentally handicapped workers with sufficient working capabilities got the ‘Melkunie’ treatment, thus freeing them from a life living on subsidies and welfare payments.

How different are things nowadays in situations, like the one described above. 

Workers are treated like immediately replaceable resources, with virtually no rights and countless obligations, of which infringements are severely punished.
I can only hope that the future government of The Netherlands and the current Belgian goverment – and as a matter of fact all governments and supranational governing bodies within the EU - take such excrescences in today’s labour markets finally serious.

Companies and governments must understand that labour unions, as well as extremely brave individual workers and cautiously united worker groups gave their blood, sweat and tears for a fair treatment of lower and middle class workers by their employers. It would be a disaster when the clock was turned back to the appaling situation of the Middle Ages, in which workers were literally owned by somebody and had no rights at all.

And so: when the free market blatantly fails, administering more market is amplifying the problem, instead of bringing the solution. 

Strong governments must act on behalf of the people who don’t have the power to do so. Protecting the poor and powerless, instead of helping the ones who have it all. It is their one of their most important obligations and a large part of their raison d’etre.

Yet, there are still few signs that the European national governments and the EU all understand that important message.

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