Despite repeated promises many welfare recipients in Leiden are still being obliged to do forced labour for more than six weeks. After this first period of six weeks the work is supposed to be ‘voluntary’ but anyone talking to the forced labourers knows that this is hardly voluntary. Because who would dare to say “no” to those who can cut your welfare, your last fragile lifeline?
|The original text in Dutch
Translated by Jet
When forced labour was formally introduced in Leiden in 2011 the municipal council stipulated that a maximum of six weeks would be applicable to this working for free without any rights. From the many conversations we since have had with forced labourers it soon became evident that the management of the forced labour centre DZB ignored the maximum completely. We exposed this a number of times and in July 2013 the Socialist Party (SP) in the council raised the issue with the then Christian Democrat (CDA) councillor Jan-Jaap de Haan.
|Leiden forced labour report 2016
1. Many welfare claimants again referred to forced labour for periods longer than six weeks
2. DZB “successfully” bullies the unemployed
3. Observation? Be honest, counsellor Damen: forced labour is really about deterring, disciplining and exploiting!
4. Paper reality of councillor Damen is contradicted by the bottom-up reality
5. Why Leiden municipality is pouring loads of money into reintegration programmes (and only gets back a little bit)
6. About the psychological games the Leiden municipality plays with the jobless
7. Forced labourers in Leiden continuously threatened with benefit cuts
In the council De Haan had to admit that a number of ‘jobseekers’ had actually worked longer than six weeks in the forced labour centre. He informed the council that one person had been forced to continue but in the other cases it was “an extension by agreement or without (expressed) objection from the jobseeker”. He did admit that it was difficult to ascertain from the “written records” whether or not the “voluntary nature” of the extension had been “sufficiently clear to the client”.
Many forced labourers may have known of the six weeks maximum but were too afraid to object when their term was tacitly extended. After all, before you know it they cut your welfare, or your adviser or the guards in the workplace make your life difficult in other ways. Such an imbalance of power simply makes any “voluntary” choice impossible.
De Haan then promised the council that in future when they enter the system the jobless would be informed verbally and in writing about the maximum period. If anyone would voluntarily agree to continue this would be recorded in writing. This was three years ago. Most forced labourers nowadays indeed appear to be well aware of the official six weeks’ maximum. They receive that information on paper. Also, as promised the ‘voluntary’ extensions are put on paper for most of them.
This is the current paper reality that the municipality uses to cover its back. In the actual reality, most of the jobless are told when they enter the system that it is a kind of standard package of twelve weeks: six weeks obligatory and after that six weeks ‘voluntary’ forced labour. Some forced labourers inform us that they were told it would be three six-week terms. Others were told that it depends on the ‘attitude’ of the ‘client’ whether or not ‘voluntary extension’ is necessary after six weeks. Some are simply left to their own devices, without any information, and thus continue their forced labour until they gather enough courage to bring up the six weeks’ period.
In the meantime the word ‘voluntary’ has gained a completely different meaning for most forced labourers. Others just laugh out loud at this entire discussion about ‘volunteering’ and say that they have never met anyone in the forced labour centre who actually remained ‘voluntarily’. The exception might be the odd forced labourer who is very susceptible to psychological pressure.
After finishing these two (or three) terms you may continue entirely ‘voluntarily’, especially if you would like to get support from your case manager in finding vacancies or if you would like to qualify for a work placement or an affordable training somewhere else. And in general this ‘voluntary continuation’ is not some sort of suggestion made by case managers but openly put as hard condition to get further support. It is as if the jobless literally have to pay for their ‘reintegration’ themselves by working for the forced labour centre without pay. The services that the consultant is supposed to offer in return do not materialise in most cases, as was to be expected: there is a crisis after all, and they do not have a lot of money to spend on each ‘client’.
A number of jobless people have told us that already when entering the forced labour centre for the first time they were told by their enthusiastic consultant that “many people” decide to continue working voluntarily, and that this is possible for a maximum of one year.
Then there are the people who return to the job centre regularly. They do their forced labour time, then find a paid job and get fired at a certain moment. After applying for benefits they end up in forced labour again. With the current economic crisis and the lack of permanent contracts it is not surprising that quite a substantial number of people is caught in this carrousel. A carrousel of heavily underpaid flex work and forced labour, something that the employers could only dream of some years ago. We have talked to a number of people who have done three or more periods of forced labour in Leiden.
What is striking is that no two stories of forced labourers are the same. Not only does the policy differ from municipality to municipality, but right now it also differs from one consultant to the other, and between one jobless person and the other, and even from day to day. The period of forced labour and the regime that is imposed on the jobless appear to strongly depend on the assertiveness of the person, but even more on the colour of their skin, their education level and their command of the Dutch language.
The arbitrary approach by consultants appears to play a huge part, but also the demand for labour at the DZB itself. Forced labourers tell us that sometimes there is no work and they are in fact just hanging around, but at other times there is a lot of work. It cannot be excluded that at such times a stronger appeal will be made on the ‘volunteering’ by forced labourers. This would constitute a kind of demand-driven ‘volunteering’ after getting in big orders. Customisation yes, but only for the forced labour centre and not for the receivers of welfare.
In a failed and inappropriate attempt to save their social face at the start of the forced labour project, the party PvdA in Leiden limited the number of hours that welfare recipients would be allowed to work to a maximum of 26 per week. According to the social democrats working 26 hours for a minimum wage would bring in exactly the same amount as being on benefits. They argued that in this way the benefit recipients would ‘earn’ the minimum wage so to speak, and it would mean that the municipality would not be evading the minimum wage. It does not seem to bother them that this work is taking place under an extremely repressive regime that imposes penalties and breaches people’s privacy, to name but a few things. It was hollow window-dressing by the PvdA. The DZB has never taken this seriously.
In fact it happens regularly that welfare receivers are put to forced labour for more than 26 hours per week. We are receiving more and more reports that forced labourers are told loud and clear that the period consists of 48 half-day parts. That means six weeks of eight half-days, i.e. working weeks of 32 hours per week. With these six extra hours of forced labour every week it means a considerably lower ‘wage per hour’ than what the social democrats considered as acceptable.
It is also not the case that less hours of forced labour are required if the amount of welfare received is reduced. We have many examples: couples who receive joint welfare that is substantially less per person than individual welfare, but at the same time both of them have to do the full number of hours of forced labour. De facto they are even ‘cheaper’ for the DZB than other forced labourers. We have even heard of a family where one partner had paid work but earned just below the welfare level. To get the supplementary assistance of 200 euro per month the other partner had to do fulltime forced labour. This meant working four days a week for just 50 euro per week!
It could still be worse, especially until approximately three years ago when everyone who was jobless had to start doing forced labour as soon as they had applied for benefits. At the time it happened that after several weeks there was a decision to reject the application which means that they had worked all that time for free, for absolutely nothing. We were told about a family with children having done forced labour together for three months to get family welfare, and still not receiving a cent. Then their consultant threatened them with a penalty because they objected to this! It makes you wonder what the consultant had in mind, a penalty reduction on zero welfare. Would they be expected to bring money to the forced labour centre?
If there is anything we have learned from all our conversations with forced labourers and other welfare receivers it is this: their stories are not the excesses but the forced labour itself is the excess. The real problem is forcing people to do work for free. It is a slippery slope because whatever agreements are made in the council, it is clear that the economic pressure and the apparent omnipotence of the DZB managers and consultants will always lead to sliding down towards even more outrageous practices. The only solution is the complete abolition of forced labour.