We’re in the same boat, so let’s row together

Integration into garbage collection.
Integration into garbage collection.
If you compare the forced integration of refugees and immigrants with the reintegration obligation of the unemployed, you will find striking similarities. With regard to both of these groups, the state through its repressive and disciplining policies distinguishes between ‘desirable’ and ‘useful’ on one side and ‘undesirable’ and ‘redundant’ on the other. This is an analysis of a political-demographic approach that will inevitably provoke resistance.

The original text in Dutch
(january 23rd, 2013)

Translated into English by Jet

The politics of immigration control and the policy of pushing the unemployed towards the labour market are based on common neo-liberal and nationalistic views. They are based on the principle that one part of the population ‘belongs’ and can determine the norms, while the other part still needs to ‘learn to belong’ and to respect these norms. The first category consists primarily of the people in privileged positions in society. The second group mainly consists of the ‘foreigners’, the unemployed and others at the bottom of society.

For the last decades the state has tried to keep ‘useless’ immigrants and refugees out through its policy of immigration control. For this purpose the compulsory identification, the so-called Koppelingswet(1), and other measures for social exclusion were introduced, aiming at complicating as much as possible the life of people who have no legal residence. Not only the asylum policies, but also the labour law and family immigration policies have become more and more restrictive, and this results in more and more frequent rejections of immigrants and refugees who are ‘without perspective’ and ‘undesirable’. In addition, the integration procedures have become more severe, which means that those ‘foreigners’ who are admitted by the authorities are confronted with the obligation to adapt themselves and to keep quiet, risking fines and possible loss of right of residence.

At the same time the government has for many years now tried to bring the unemployed into line, and tried to discipline them for the labour market where the bosses can exploit them through flexible hours agreements. Social benefits are becoming less of an entitlement and more of a favour. To retain their already meagre income the unemployed must meet the reintegration obligation that subjects them to job application training, to therapies and other courses. They are taught in this way to adjust their behaviour, language and appearance to the wishes of the bosses in order to hire out their bodies and minds for the maximum benefit. This disciplining has increased considerably and is intended to push the unemployed towards a healthy, sensible and productive existence, at the risk of reduction or loss of their social benefits.


The integration processes for both immigrants and refugees on the one hand and for the unemployed on the other have a lot in common. This becomes evident when we list five distinctive developments at both material and ideological level.

1. Become good and hardworking model citizens. Both the immigrants and the unemployed must be told again and again that their lives should serve the interests of ‘The Netherlands Inc.’ They are to do as they are told and they must be flexible and submissive. Only those who work, count. They must embrace the supposed ‘Dutch culture’ or they will be excluded, and will be branded as delinquent, profiteers or even terrorists. If you do not have a job, then shut up. If you do not speak sufficient Dutch, you will no longer receive benefits. Integration and reintegration consultants have become look-alikes. They try to educate and punish both the immigrants and the unemployed based on the cliché of the ‘hardworking Dutchman’. Everyone is expected to work ‘according to ability’ until they drop dead.

2. You made your bed, now you must sleep in it. The immigrants and unemployed are warned that the state is not a gambling machine. There was a time when the welfare state was the historical compromise in the battle between the labour movement and the capital owners. But this ‘care from the cradle to the grave’ had to be ended because it was becoming unaffordable. The state is taking away acquired rights and is introducing more and more severe obligations. The safety net of social security is being traded in for ‘the springboard’ towards employment. With the dogma of ‘individual responsibility’ people are left to fend for themselves. Those who do not make it have only themselves to blame. “We did not ask you to come to the Netherlands”, the immigrants are told. They are taught the lesson that “it is not our responsibility that you are not employed, it is your problem.” The principle of solidarity where the strongest should carry the heaviest burden has been replaced by the neo-liberal principle ‘everyone should take care of themselves’. Migrants must pay for their own integration programme and the unemployed have to work in forced labour for a living, that is: for their benefits.

3. Be your own manager. Immigrants and unemployed people do not have problems, but are a problem in the eyes of the authorities. They are labelled with what they are not, or not yet. They are told that they are not Dutch enough, that they are not productive enough. They are not where they are supposed to be according to the public opinion, namely in the warm bath of the Dutch culture and on the sacred labour market with its holy employment. In order to get there they must become their own managers. They must embrace the dominant norms and values, increase their knowledge and skills, improve themselves, test themselves, manage and push themselves. Their existence must meet the requirements of the labour market and the dynamics of the capitalist economy to the fullest extent possible. There should be an imaginary boss inside their heads, watching them and reprimanding them, preferably 24 hours per day. They must be pushed to as much as possible independently drive their own lives according to the guidelines of The Netherlands Inc.

As of 2013 for example, immigrants and refugees have to organise and pay for their own integration procedure. If someone’s income is too low, they are expected to take out a loan for this and burden themselves with debt. If someone does not pass for the integration examination in three years’ time, they risk losing their temporary residence permit or getting fined. In the same manner in an increasing number of municipalities, the unemployed are expected to take care of and manage their own reintegration plan. If someone does not advance sufficiently towards paid employment, they risk a benefit cut. Because the unemployed do not have paid employment, it is put into their heads that they do not have sufficient work routine. That is why they are forced to learn to work through all kinds of reintegration processes, monitored by supervisors who observe them and report on them. These kinds of trajectories are used for the municipal propaganda stories that the unemployed are being helped to ‘regain the direction over their own lives’.

4. First the witch hunt, then the punishment. The policies against immigrants and the unemployed are invariably prepared through investigations and propaganda. In the nineties, when the system of social and governmental apartheid was built up, this was accompanied by criminalising people without a residence permit in the media and on the basis of research commissioned or undertaken by the government. This provided the building bricks for the apartheid building. Since that time the policy makers and opinion leaders continue to develop their propaganda against immigrants and the unemployed, and eagerly make use of all possible prejudices. Both groups in society are pictured as being up to no good, and more than average involved in delinquency, lying and cheating, profiteering, and as lagging behind socially and culturally, being only interested in their own social circle and origins, and not making sufficient efforts for society. These stories are not only intended to justify the introduction of new policies, but also especially to create the impression that repression against the underclass is an entirely normal course of events. Through a torrent of sanctions and other forms of force the immigrants and unemployed people are checked, disciplined and harassed. Scientists and other experts are the eyes and ears of the government that make it possible to get hold of information from the lower class in society, and to strengthen the grip on the immigrants and unemployed.

5. Preparing for pulp jobs and forced labour. Poverty and social insecurity among immigrants and unemployed are on the increase. They not only have a low income but also experience more difficulties to find housing. More and more this necessitates living with more people in one house. Parents move in with their children, children who before were living by themselves will return to live with their parents. This makes people more and more dependent upon each other. Permanent employment contracts have become the exception, as the norm nowadays is flexible work. The immigrants and unemployed people are usually put to work in the care sector and cleaning services, paid or unpaid. An expanding sector is the private services industry: taking care of the sick, the elderly, and managing the household of double-income families. In the eighties and nineties the underpaid and flexible work was mostly done by immigrants without official papers. They were hired and heavily exploited by contractors, being picked up early in the morning by vans to do unskilled, dirty and heavy work in the informal economy. But now the unemployed are being forced to work under similar circumstances, where the minimum wage and collective labour agreements are ignored and labour rights are violated. The contractors of today are the civil servants of the municipalities who offer companies the unemployed as labour on employment conditions and wages that are below even the level of temp agencies. This is how municipalities and reintegration services contribute to the increasing deterioration of labour rights and social security.


All these developments paint a dark picture of the pressure that the authorities exert on the immigrants and the unemployed. At the same time every action of the policy makers can result in a reaction. Power relations are not static elements, they are in constant movement. In the eighties and nineties the advancement of flexible employment and the destruction of labour rights hit the immigrants most. Today this affects the entire society, and this may result in more opportunities and possibilities for resistance.

The dismantling of the welfare state and the rise of the neo-liberal repressive state is now affecting people who before assumed themselves to be safe. More and more people are ending up in the same boat and they will have to row together. The rich are still enjoying the sunshine on the deck of their cruise ship. The realisation that now we all have become the target could lead to new forms of solidarity, across the barriers and divides that are the results of many years of ‘divide and rule’ politics and indoctrination. The immigrants with their forced integration and the unemployed with their reintegration obligation are gradually moved into the same position. In fact, today’s unemployed are often literally the immigrants or the children of the immigrants of before: they had to integrate because they came from abroad, and now they have to reintegrate because they have no employment.

If you are in the same boat, you will have to row together. Against the tide, and hopefully armed with the insight that the state will have to do its utmost, spend a great deal of money and efforts, to get control of the bottom of society. The overwhelming arsenal of inspection and disciplining tools and regulations of the integration and reintegration industry in itself demonstrate that the state is not really capable of moulding immigrants and unemployed people according to the needs of capitalism. It is obvious that obligatory integration does not happen automatically and cannot easily be enforced. Every day millions of people are putting up a fight, they struggle to be here and stay here, they fight against control and disciplining, they fight for autonomy and respect. Every day, this fight causes little cracks in the gigantic machinery of capitalism, and together we can make those small cracks bigger if we want. And why shouldn’t we?

Harry Westerink

Note by the translator
1. The ‘Koppelingswet’ connects any right to community services to the condition of someone’s legal status in the Netherlands