Making the forced labor center ungovernable

Flush forced labour through the toilet.
Flush forced labour through the toilet.
The struggle continues against the forced labor center DZB in Leiden, where welfare recipients must work without receiving real wages. After successful actions on May 1st and 2nd, the emphasis of Doorbraak’s actions in these coming months will be on undermining the governability of the center..

The original text in Dutch
(june 21st, 2013)

Translated into English by Jaap

On May 1st, Doorbraak organized a Labor Day celebration for the second consecutive year on the plaza in front of the DZB in Leiden. To our surprise, the administration gave all of the forced laborers the rest of the day off. Understandably, most of them went home directly and only some persons stayed for the celebration. With this yearly celebration, we want to show our support for the forced laborers and further build up our contact with them. On this day, it was not possible. However, winning a free day for all of the forced laborers was a small victory. For this day off, we were thanked by diverse benefits claimants who would have otherwise had to work for no pay. We decided to try it the next day one more time. It was a win/win situation; either the forced laborers would not have to work another day for free, or we could celebrate May Day together. If the administration had given another day off, then of course we would have come again the next day and there therefore would have been a de facto moratorium on forced labor in Leiden. Naturally, the management would not have been pleased with this outcome, therefore, we were finally able to celebrate May Day together.

On the first day of the protest, the DZB adjunct director Rob van Rijn came outside to personally feel the pulse of the demonstration. He insisted that the day off had nothing to do with the celebration. “DZB suddenly free on May Day”, read the headline in Het Leidsch Dagblad. “That was for internal reasons”, said Van Rijn to the newspaper. “It doesn’t have anything to do with Doorbraak.” He had no further comment, the newspaper reported. Van Rijn’s boss, the responsible Christian Democrat alderman Jan-Jaap de Haan was also interviewed. He admitted that the working unemployed were actually sent home because of the Doorbraak action. “Not because DZB wanted to avoid conversation with the protesters, but because the management no longer felt like it would be able to manage.”

Distraction Maneuvers

On May 3rd, the newspaper devoted yet another article to the celebration at the DZB. The alderman deemed Doorbraak’s “methods” objectionable. He was referring to the throwing of balls at portraits of DZB employees, and he said that he was considering filing a police report. He tried to do this last year as well, but the justice department didn’t do anything about it. “I don’t know how we could have insulted them, but let the municipality file another police report against us,” we told the newspaper, because “they are playing into the hand of activists.”

“During demonstrations, they call managers of the DZB ‘camp guards’. That is unacceptable”, asserted De Haan in the article. In actuality, Doorbraak has never used the word camp. “We distance ourselves from direct comparisons with fascism. We do however use the word ‘guard’, because the workers themselves call them that. We are very precise with our choice of words”, was our reply in the article.

De Haan went on to say: “We respect the right to demonstrate, but they are directing it at the wrong address.” Doorbraak is with regard to these actions certainly at the right address: the employees of the DZB are indeed the ones forcing people to work without pay, day in and day out. De Haan: “They may speak to me as alderman, but must not name and shame other functionaries”. Doorbraak: “We name and shame functionaries because the unemployed have to lay everything out on the table during roleplaying and reintegration courses”. De Haan: “I have never seem them at city hall”. But he was apparently not paying attention, consider our answer: “On February 17, 2011, we spoke at a commission meeting. We handed out brochures at the entrance of city hall”. All in all positive coverage, while the alderman pulled out all the stops and scrambled to not have to talk about the question of forced labor itself.

Open letter

During the two actions, DZB director Bas van Drooge was on vacation. That’s why we sent him an open thank you letter three weeks later. The integral text follows:

“Dear Bas van Drooge,

Hopefully, you have had a nice vacation. Unfortunately, you missed a nice party! You have probably already heard one thing or another about our party, on May 1st just outside the door of your DZB. With this letter, we would like to thank you and the rest of the administration kindly for the free day that you suddenly gave to all of the forced laborers. The first day of May is, as you know, a meaningful day for many people worldwide; the day that workers celebrate their struggle and the labor rights which they have won. Sadly, these labor rights have been undermined by practices such as forced labor. Therefore, we cheer the decision of adjunct director Rob van Rijn who on that day right before our party deemed it necessary to give all of the forced laborers the rest of the day off.

Van Rijn also participated for a short time in our celebration, and informed us that he had sent the workers home for internal reasons. In Het Leidsh Dagblad, he later asserted that “it has nothing to do with Doorbraak”. Luckily, your boss expressed a little more sincerity. He freely admitted to the newspaper that “the management did not feel capable to manage”. This panic reaction to our party showed all of the “unemployed” how flimsy your position actually is, and how easy it is to disturb your forced labor regime. We are thankful for this signal, because it gives extra hope and courage to everyone who fights with us against the evasion of the minimum wage and the squandering of our labor rights. Will there be another ‘May Day Off’ next year?”

That was the letter. In the following days, we of course spread our writings among the forced laborers. The ones whom we spoke about could definitely appreciate the humor.


More important than the loose chatter about his civil servants was De Haan’s admission that “the management” was on the brink of losing control. If a small party during the break could cause a disaster, then “the management”, or better yet the guards on the workplace floor always operate on the brink of ungovernability. One knows damn well that anger and frustration prevail amongst the forced laborers. This is the result of the continuous disciplinary process to which they are subjected, and the feeling of being treated in an utterly unjust and unlawful manner. The daily belittlement and hindrances which cause anger and frustration to bubble to the surface and explode require the management to constantly walk the tightrope. It is obviously that the projection was that the May Day party could have disturbed this delicate balance.

In their dealings with Doorbraak and the disgruntled forced laborers, the center probably for that reason always chooses the same strategy: avoiding direct conflict. Doorbraak activists are no longer allowed to come inside to talk with forced laborers in the cafeteria. Unemployed Doorbraak activists are not forced to work: they are actively prevented from coming on the work floor so they won’t be able to organize resistance. The management tries almost desperately to keep the forced laborers away from Doorbraak activists and is even not beyond resorting to veiled warnings and intimidation techniques. That’s why the forced laborers were given a day off on May 1, and the management assumed that the daily frustration would be so high that most of them would not stay at the DZB one minute longer than necessary.

Keeping at a Distance

In our experiment in Leiden against forced labor, organization and the search for the possibility of forming a concrete struggle play a central role. By keeping their distance from us, the forced labor center hinders the progress of these goals. However, their avoidance leads concurrently to concrete successes: exemption from forced labor for politically active unemployed people and now a day off for all forced laborers. With an eye on sharing our experiences with other leftists, we have become more open about our strategies, coming activities, and evaluations. This same openness allows the management of the center the chance to anticipate our activities, allowing us new victories and room for organization and concrete struggle. At least it makes the management nervous, which does not help the stability and governability of their operation. It looks like the free May Day was a kind of panic decision.

Because of the minimal resources and manpower available to the radical left, it is difficult to have a real influence on government policy regarding forced labor. There is not much support from political parties or unions. Even the most sympathetic, such as the Socialist Party and the FNV union can apparently still accept three months of forced labor as a norm. There are also few possibilities even on the local level in Leiden, considering that the unions are seldom active and the SP votes in the city council in support of forced labor. Thus, our only option is concrete struggle against the forced labor center, wherein we aim to make it ungovernable and remove as many unemployed persons as possible from the forced labor regime. We will continue pushing against the DZB until it gives and a fight ensues leading to grassroots counterpower and publicity. At the moment that we have built up enough power from the bottom up, we can then look at the possibility of further actions. In the meantime, we naturally support protests against forced labor in other cities and on the national level. And we will continue to pressure the local politicians, something which we will have ample opportunity to do leading up to the city council elections.


After the May Day actions, we organized two meetings with forced laborers, former forced laborers, other unemployed people, and employed people sympathetic to our cause. Most forced laborers seemed not used to holding meetings and also had little desire to talk about their work after such an emotionally demoralizing day. Understandably, they want to think as little as possible about their forced labor. A formal and official No to Forced Labor platform has yet to be realized. However, it could still happen because new people are always joining the ranks of the unemployed and if someone finds work, they could just as easily lose their job again. For the time being, we are not organizing any more meetings at our office.

We would like more than ever to have a presence on the plaza in front of the building so we can talk with the forced laborers. We will also actively look for other people to come with us; unemployed, employed, and everyone else. The discussions we’ve had there have always been the most fruitful and inspiring for everyone. It is there that we think of new ideas, make plans, and complain and curse about the management while laughing as we think about what we could accomplish. Outside on a bench in the sun, or on the edge of the plaza where one is allowed to smoke – that’s where it happens. On occasion, one can sense a communal atmosphere of rebellion and self-respect, a feeling which we would like to expand and collectivize, allowing more people get to know each other. We want to create an environment which will foster an authentic drive to organize, one where the necessity can really be felt by everyone.

During the past few weeks, we have developed a few action-points for the coming period. Forced laborers will try to fight against the fact that they often must work longer than the six week period which the municipality prescribes. Perhaps a standard termination request form can be developed which workers can hand in as a group after six weeks. According to the alderman, the six weeks are for “the management” so that they can assess if an “unemployed” person can work, and what his/her problem is. Because in the minds of the policy makers, the fact that people have lost their jobs never has anything to do with the economic situation or the austerity imposed by the politicians. But if the management needs several months or even a year, then it is perhaps time to subject them to a performance assessment, from the bottom up of course.

In addition, some forced laborers have asked for Doorbraak buttons with the slogan “Turn the world upside down, organize from the downside up”. This way, they can irritate the management without having to risk sanctions by opening their mouths. This way, the protest would have a lasting presence on the workroom floor, and “the management” would be constantly reminded that forced labor is not normal. Possible intervention by the security guards against these symbols would be taken advantage of as an impetus for concrete action and solidarity with those affected. This way, we can keep undermining the governability of the DZB.

Eric Krebbers