Labour migration will go hand in hand with exploitation

26 February 2012

Labour migration will go hand in hand with exploitation

The fact that the labour market is being disrupted is not the fault of Eastern European workers but of politicians, argues SP leader Emile Roemer.

The complaints line on ‘pollution’ and ‘nuisance caused by Eastern Europeans’ which is run by the right-wing populist PVV is creating a great deal of disquiet. Rightly so, as it looks like the organisation of a witch-hunt. The site is an attempt to conceal the lack of attention paid by the PVV to the socio-economic causes of labour migration. The results of this migration cannot be investigated without reflecting upon thirty years of neoliberal, right-wing politics, in which migration has been encouraged by employers without any attempt to combat exploitation, unfair competition or downward pressure on working conditions.

The PVV’s one-sided view of labour migration distracts from the sensible conclusions that have been arrived at both inside and outside Parliament in relation to the growing influx of Eastern European workers. On the SP’s initiative a parliamentary commission has investigated the consequences of this influx and described them in the report ‘Lessen uit recente arbeidsmigratie' (Lessons of recent labour migration).

The Netherlands cannot absorb hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. Fraudulent employment bureaux have been exploiting Eastern Europeans for many years, bringing unfair competition on wages and conditions to Dutch workers. In contrast to the PVV's encouragement to complain about foreign workers, the SP in 2005 opened an information line designed to investigate the results of the influx. "The SP is not against people from either the 'old' or the 'new' Europe who want to come here to earn their corn," wrote SP Member of Parliament Jan de Wit at the time, "but this must of course be according to our conditions of service, working hours and working conditions and under the protection of our social security."

You will notice how xenophobia played no part in this. "Everyone wants to see Polish people have a better future, but not through offering them exploitation via, measured by national yardsticks, low pay, long working hours, or poor housing and working conditions," wrote De Wit in 2006.

The SP did state that the mass arrival of workers from Poland could be disruptive. "The Poles are exploited, and Dutch workers and small businesses and the self-employed forced from the market." It is no secret that the large-scale deployment of cheap labour put wages in the Netherlands under pressure. Hauliers established in Eastern Europe with no more than a post office box compete with Dutch drivers who work under rules established by a decent collective labour agreement, forcing them out of the market. Amongst workers, thsi situation makes everyone a loser. The regulation of the influx and the preservation of decent conditions of service are the only ways in which labour migration can be handled with due care. Whoever wants to come to the Netherlands to work is heartily welcome, but this must be under the conditions which we have agreed amongst ourselves here. A system of work permits for workers from Central and Eastern Europe is an excellent way of regulating the labour market. Compulsory permits for employment agencies must be reintroduced in order to prevent new abuses.

In the 1980s SP members were accused of being ‘crypto-fascists’ when they drew attention to the growing contrast between guest-workers and Dutch workers. Yet it was precisely by speaking with the guest-workers themselves that we came to the conclusion that exploitation and unfair competition were two sides of the same coin. The people living in the neighbourhoods where Central- and Eastern Europeans are settling are often the same people who saw things go wrong with migrants from the 1960s, and their problems with the influx from Central and Eastern European countries must be resolved, and quickly, not by pillorying an entire group, but by working hard for integration and by carefully regulating the labour market. These things are badly needed.

Instead of the 10,000 workers from Eastern Europe which were predicted there are around 300,000 people from the region employed in the Netherlands. The fact that the labour market is being disrupted is not the fault of Eastern European workers but of politicians in The Hague and in Brussels. Making a single labour market from unequal economies creates an underclass who work without legal protection and are underpaid.

Parties which have declared sacred the ‘free movement of persons’ in Europe must see for themselves that competition between the lowest paid has turned out to be disastrous for these workers themselves, for the neighbourhoods in which they are being stashed away and for the societies which they leave behind at home.

Since the 1970s, learning the language and naturalisation have been, for the SP, conditions for residency in the Netherlands. The past, in which the integration especially of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants failed, must not be repeated. We must be extremely careful in opening the borders to large groups of Eastern European workers. Before you can receive large numbers of visitors your own house must be in good order. The free movement of persons must never be an excuse for exploitation and a downward spiral of wages and working conditions. Certainly not in an unequal Europe in which labour migration, far from being a sign of freedom, is the result of poverty.

This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on 21st February 2012 in the Dutch regional newspaper the Eindhovens Dagblad

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