Labour migration is a class issue

10 May 2013

Labour migration is a class issue

Jan Marijnissen - On a warm Sunday morning people gathered in the centre of Oss, my home town, all of them men, all of Spanish origin. Everyone else had left town, either to go and enjoy themselves by the Maas or to do a little cycling around Herperduin. It put me in mind of lonely Sunday afternoons during my time at boarding school. What kind of a life must that be? Months away from home, far away from your wife and children?

A few years on I became one of their workmates at the sausage factory in Zwanenberg, where we communicated with gestures and jokes. Yet there was nothing funny about the way they had to exist. They were regularly forced to work hours and hours of overtime, housed eight to a room in deplorable hostels for which they paid scandalous rents. But why were they here? Spain was still ruled by the dictator Franco, but for most that wasn’t the reason they left. It was unemployment and a lack of prospects which drove them. The bosses at Zwanenberg had recruited them, and our foreign workmates were exploited, that much you can state with confidence. They were under daily pressure to produce kilos of sausages beyond what was expected of us, increasing the tempo of work. Wages were also under pressure because most guest-workers were prepared to settle for less.

Later, Turks arrived at our factory. Firms recruited Moroccans and later still, when the EU made it possible, Poles as well. Of the latter, far more came than the 10,000 expected by the Dutch government. In fact, the numbers ran to hundreds of thousands. The same things quickly became visible as we had seen with the Spaniards: ousting of indigenous worker and pressure on wages and working conditions. Exactly what the bosses wanted, and want. How does that work? First of all there are the recruitments bureaux who act as go-betweens between firms seeking workers and Poles seeing work. Because many of the latter aren’t au fait with the rights and duties of a worker in the Netherlands, these sub-contractors can easily abuse this ignorance, as can the employers. Examples are heard of dreadful conditions best described as modern slavery. Things become extremely complicated when Poles work here ‘on the lump’. Registered as self-employed they are not restricted as to how many hours they can work or covered by other rules included in the collective labour agreement covering their industry and trade, matters which for Dutch employers go without saying.

A new stream of labour migration is imminent, this time from Romania and Bulgaria, with Croatia to follow. The army of wandering pariahs continues to grow.

As are so many things, labour migration is a class issue. The division between those who gain an advantage and those who suffer disadvantage makes this clear. With the Maastricht Treaty, which put in place the free movement of goods, capital, services and people, the EU became one big labour market.

As a result, European integration became a project serving the desires of big firms and of multinational corporations, and certainly not one which extends the benefits to workers or small businesses.

This column first appeared in the original Dutch on 8th May, 2013 in the Dutch national newspaper NRC.

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