Job substitution

Hunting for 'volunteers'.
Hunting for ‘volunteers’.

Doorbraak has published a lot of articles on the issue of forced labour for benefit claimants. The emphasis has mainly been on the regime they have to work under. But equally important is the substitution of regular paid work that is the consequence of forced labour. This substitution undermines the entire system of paid labour: why should an employer pay for workers when it is becoming easier all the time to get workers for free from the Ministry of Social Affairs. In this way the forced labour not only affects the unemployed but will eventually also have consequences for everyone who has to work for a living through a regular paid job or working as a freelancer.

The original text in Dutch
(February 27th, 2013)

Translated into English by Jet

“Home care workers in Rotterdam who will lose their jobs in 2014 will be partly replaced by benefit recipients. The municipality will oblige those on benefits to do volunteer work”, De Volkskrant newspaper wrote towards the end of 2013. “This is substitution pure and simple”, according to Wim van der Hoorn, a union leader of the FNV labour union. “The municipality tries to patch up the holes in its budget by using the free labour of benefit claimants to get work done that previously was paid work. In this way employment is lost”. But the PvdA (Social Democratic party) elderman Marco Florijn tries to keep up appearances and “wishes to underline that the absolute precondition is that no regular jobs are lost”. His political associate Jan Hamming, mayor of Heusden and chairman of the advisory committee “Work and Income” of the association of Dutch municipalities VNG, is a lot more honest on this issue. He admits that the use of benefit claimants can threaten existing jobs. “There is a financial side to this story. We are confronted with substantial budget cuts. That also impacts on the work in municipalities: it does not get done. So it is only logical that we are also considering putting people who are on benefits to work.” Rotterdam is not a unique case for that matter: thousands, possibly tens of thousands and who knows in future hundreds of thousands of benefit claimants are being forced to do unpaid labour.

Sticky fingers

The question is who profits from forced labour and job substitution, and what the amounts are that we are talking about. It is difficult for us to get this information. The implementation is far from transparent. Many municipalities have already introduced forced labour but they all have their own approach, often through structures that differ only slightly. In some instances the benefit claimants have to do forced labour in municipal reintegration centres and sheltered workplaces, in other places they have to work in home care or with ‘volunteer’ organisations, and other municipalities put them to work in commercial reintegration agencies, temp agencies and commercial businesses.

Obviously any commercial business will only want to be involved in such projects if these are financially attractive. In principle forced labourers are cheaper than regular employees because they do not receive wages and have no entitlements regarding better (and thus more expensive) working conditions. But it is usually unclear how much money is involved, and where exactly it disappears into the deep pockets along the way in the outplacement chain. In most cases it will be financially attractive for the municipalities to force benefit claimants into compulsory unpaid labour. After all, their benefits are being paid by the national government, although in practice quite a few municipalities have already been obliged to pay a share of these costs. With or without municipal deficit: all extra income from forced labour is probably welcome. The downside is that an entire system of repression has to be set up to continuously monitor the forced labourers, and this is costly: the minimum that is necessary would be the monitoring infrastructure plus the wages for the guards and ‘coordinators’. But this in a way is employment and can probably be paid out of the so-called ‘employment budget’ which is part of the social benefits budget that the municipalities receive from the government. In addition there have to be employees who bring in customers and orders, and this should not be too difficult with the obviously low labour cost that can be guaranteed through forced labour. Companies and municipalities try to sell forced labour with all sorts of explanations about ‘social return’, ‘gaining experience’, and ‘giving people guidance and support’, as they do for low paid and unpaid internships and other types of worktraining programmes. Usually it is just empty words but not always: sometimes they really do invest some time into explaining the work to people and training them. And in some cases new workers do indeed produce less in the beginning than their experienced colleagues. In short there would have to be an in depth national research with full cooperation from civil servants, businesses, unions and economists to get to the bottom of who really benefits from forced labour and to what extent.


The question is: how useful would such research be for the bottom-up activists, for the workers themselves? And what do we mean by ‘substitution’, how would we describe it? If we look at it from the bottom up it is really very simple: any form of labour that is paid less than the minimum wage or the collective labour agreement wage for adults, in whatever way and with whatever excuse possible, in fact means that regular paid jobs are being replaced. This applies to forced labour in the same way it applies to unpaid internships, worktraining programmes, youth minimum wage jobs, and so on. After all the existing work is turned into a lower paid or even unpaid job.

For alderman Florijn ‘substitution’ probably only applies when a regular paid job is replaced one-on-one by ‘voluntary work’. From the position of the forced labourer however it does not matter at all whether or not the work was a decently paid job earlier on. The issue is that work that is done by a forced labourer cannot be done by a regular paid worker any more. To put it bluntly: every forced labourer is made to substitute the paid job that he or she could have had without forced labour. And this also goes for work that has never, or not for years, been paid work. The fact is that this work obviously needs to be done, otherwise no one would be forced to do it, or be recruited for it, and no internships would be established to do it. The authorities and bosses would simply have to pay to get this work done if forced labour and all sorts of vague internship constructions had not been created. In that case the labourers would have had their wages and rights. Basically there is only one exception to this rule and this is the work that was simply made up to keep benefit claimants busy, to discipline them and bully them out of the benefits scheme. You know the type of work: one man digs a hole and the other one fills it up again. Or the type of forced labour where the benefit claimants just have to show up at the workplace but there is nothing to be done except hang around and wait. This is not substitution of course, but out of principle even in those cases people ought to be properly paid for this. Let alone the fact that benefit claimants are being humiliated by this, and that for that reason alone forced labour should be abolished immediately.

But there is more to substitution than this. Forced labour and obligatory ‘volunteer work’ are not only substituting regular paid jobs, but also important unpaid work such as for example first-line care by family or others, political activism, and also a lot of real volunteer work that the government does not approve of. This means that the existing volunteer economy is losing its autonomy and gets to be more and more controlled by municipalities. In this way forced labour harms community and volunteer work, and other activities outside of the capitalist logic that make life worthwhile for many people.

Profit and loss

When we start looking at the financial question from bottom-up things actually become quite simple. The extra revenues that this substitution generates for bosses and municipalities equals exactly the amount that all forced labourers, interns and work experience placements together lose compared to when they would receive a regular (collective labour agreement or adult) minimum wage. This is the amount that the working class as a whole is being deprived of, on top of the added value they produce and that is always appropriated by the capitalist class anyway. These calculations can also easily be made for individual cases: how much money does a benefit claimant who works, receive less compared to when he or she would be paid a regular wage. And if we would add these sums for the by now estimated tens of thousands of forced labourers we quickly end up with huge amounts. In Leiden the forced labourers officially have to work 26 hours a week, and as a result the minimum wage for the hours worked would be exactly the same as their benefits. This would be a financial-technical way to prevent substitution, but in practice most forced labourers work far more than 26 hours. In addition the forced labour placements continue to substitute regular jobs with regular labour rights.

If you look at it from the bottom up it is a false argument used by employers and municipalities, that forced labourers, interns and youth work placements have to learn the work and produce less so should get paid less. Not only is their production not always lower, in some cases it is even higher. The point is that this growing group of underpaid or not paid labourers have to pay for their housing, food, clothing and insurances just like anyone else. It is not about productivity as it is with old-fashioned piece rate, but about the time that workers give to their bosses. The workers can only make use of their time once, and this is a problem when due to these forms of underpayment more and more people working during all the working hours they have only receive an income that is not even a living wage. The issue should be a decent living wage for everyone.

Eric Krebbers