Bring back employment permits for migrant workers

18 July 2009

Bring back employment permits for migrant workers

In its approach to migrant workers, the Netherlands is repeating mistakes made forty years ago, say Sadet Karabulut and Paul Ulenbelt, Members of Parliament for the SP

With effect from 1st May 2007, employment permits for workers from central and eastern European (CEE) countries were abolished. This was a mistake the consequences of which will continue to be felt for some considerable time. In the debate in 2004 which preceded the opening of the borders, the government asserted that a maximum of 10,000 workers from these countries would come to the Netherlands. Yet since then, fifteen times that number have arrived from Poland alone.

Two years after the opening of the borders, Labour (PvdA) local authorities in The Hague and Rotterdam and their party colleague Eberhard Van der Laan, Minister for Integration, are sounding the alarm over the problems surrounding this new wave of immigration. The question is, however, whether this growing understanding will lead to any kind of action.

Inhabitants of the neighbourhoods where people from central and eastern Europe are settling are often the same people who experienced friction with the immigrants who arrived in the 1960s. The problems they are now experiencing with the massive influx of workers from CEE countries must be speedily resolved. Learning the language and naturalisation have, since the late 1970s, been obligatory for anyone who wants to settle in the Netherlands. The history of the failure to integrate what were primarily Turkish and Moroccan immigrants must not be repeated. Yet we hear still the echoes of words of the people who forty years ago made crucial errors of judgement: "leave well alone, they won't be staying, they'll be going back."

Tens of thousands of Poles are taking up long-term residence in the Netherlands, and ever increasing numbers want to build their futures here. Because of this, schools in vulnerable neighbourhoods must confront once more an influx of pupils with a poor grasp of Dutch. Similar language problems have been experienced in the UK, where the government has been even more enthusiastic in welcoming workers from CEE countries. Waiting lists for council houses are growing as ever more migrant workers register for rented accommodation. There is nothing to indicate that things will be any different in the Netherlands. As well as in neighbourhoods and schools, language problems are affecting firms in disturbing ways. In sectors such as health care, wholesale distribution and building, such problems have been evident for some time. The main trade union federation, the FNV, conducted a survey in July 2008 and discovered that a third of building workers had experienced dangerous situations brought about by language problems involving colleagues from CEE countries.

The growing recognition of these problems must in our view lead to serious measures on the part of government and local authorities. The most important of such measures would be the reintroduction of employment permits for migrant workers. This would aid sectors who really need additional labour. In addition, we would prevent employers from discriminating, out of sheer laziness or convenience, against older workers and those who have been, in the past, registered as disabled and unfit for work, in favour of groups of Polish workers who can be hired en bloc. We could weigh the consequences of a rapid influx for, for example, schools and neighbourhoods, and obligatory naturalisation would become more feasible. The government should therefore propose at European level that Article 3 of the EU Treaty be amended, in order to allow member states to stipulate limits to the free movement of persons. If we do not act, we will continue for many years to be confronted with exploitation, growing social problems and the systematic disruption of the labour market in both the Netherlands and Poland.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Dutch in the daily newspaper De Volkskrant on 18th July 2009.

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