On forced labour in the Netherlands

Skya's logo.
SKYA’s logo.

Yesterday evening two Doorbraak activists gave a talk in Athens on workfare and forced labour in the Netherlands. The meeting was organized by SKYA and some seventy people attended. The debate afterwards was very inspiring. In October SKYA activists will come to the Netherlands to give two talks. In Nijmegen they will speak about the refugee and antifascist stuggles in Greece, and in Amsterdam they will focus on class struggle, especially against workfare. Here’s our talk from yesterday.

Μετάφραση στα ελληνικά

Thank you for receiving us in Athens. We are glad to be here. First, we will tell you something about our collective, Doorbraak, and why we became active in the struggle against forced labour. Then, we will explain the system of forced labour in the Netherlands and the trends in capitalism that it connects to. We will then point out similarities with surrounding countries. Finally, we will tell you about our campaign, our successes and limitations.

Doorbraak organizes two meetings in the Netherlands with SKYA

On Sunday afternoon, October 23rd, there is a meeting in Nijmegen on antifascism and the struggle of refugees in Greece. On Thursday evening, October 27th, the meeting in Amsterdam focusses on he struggle against budget cuts and workfare in Greece.

On September 22nd, two Doorbraak activists spoke in Athens at a meeting organized by SKYA. Their talk was about the struggle against workfare in the Netherlands. Here is their their story in English and in Greek.

Doorbraak is a revolutionary left grassroots organisation in the Netherlands, fighting against capitalism, racism and patriarchy. Our collective, which consists of around 35 people active in different cities, was founded in 2007 by the merger of two groups and some other activists who sympathised with us. One group consisted of mostly white activists coming from the revolutionary left milieu and the other consisted of Dutch-Turkish activists, who wanted to focus on struggles in the Netherlands instead of struggles in Turkey. From the start Doorbraak has consisted of people from different political backgrounds like anarchists, non-hierarchical socialists and autonomists. We were also influenced by feminism and anti-racism. On the practical level we participate in the struggle against migration control politics and we support undocumented refugees and migrants. We struggle against the glorification of Dutch colonialism and against racism in the police force, politics, media and popular culture. We are active against the Dutch extreme right, the Turkish extreme right and Turkish nationalism in the Netherlands. Because of the ongoing financial crisis, we decided to become active in the struggle against austerity a few years ago.

We also decided that we wanted to work according to the theory of “community organising”, but adapted this theory to our specific situation and the means of our collective. Briefly, the method entails that you go to people directly concerned by a social injustice that you encounter yourself as well. Together with them you try to end the injustice. You organise on the basis of common interest and not so much on the basis of common ideology. This means that you work together with people that are not necessarily politicised and the means you choose for your campaign can only be as radical as the people involved. But the idea is that people radicalise through political struggle. Furthermore, it is important to evaluate your campaign regularly and celebrate your successes, even if they are very small.

From 2011 onwards, we have decided to focus our struggle against austerity on the struggle against forced labour. This was because we found out that unemployment, welfare benefits and forced labour are subjects that connect most people within and surrounding our group. Some of us are receiving welfare, others have done so in the past or are living under the threat that they will have to do so in the future. Also, if the government takes workers’ rights away from those at the bottom of society, the rights of all workers will be affected. We encountered some experiments with cutting salaries in Amsterdam. In Leiden, the city where we live, a forced labour centre was opened by the municipality. Members of our local collective were under the threat of being forced to work for free. So we felt like we had to take on this struggle, because it concerned us directly, and because it concerns everyone. We wanted to use the method of organising to bring people together.

We would like to explain something more about forced labour in the Netherlands and surrounding countries. If you are unemployed in the Netherlands and you don’t have any income or savings you can apply for social welfare. However, if you do so, you are subject to a system of strict government control and legal obligations. You have to do everything you can to find a paid job, and you have to accept any paid job that you can get or that is offered to you. Municipalities can also force you to participate in forced labour programs, in which you have to work for free. You only get your welfare benefits, which is no salary, and the minimum wage rules for people with paid jobs are violated. You are denied normal workers’ rights, like the right to strike. You are still subject to the repressive regime of the municipality for welfare receivers, which means that you have to give the government access to your private data like bank accounts, that you are subject to government checks concerning housing and living together, and so on. Also, if according to your case manager you don’t try hard enough to find a paid job, your benefits might be suspended for up to three months, or even cut indefinitely. If you refuse to participate in a forced labour program, you can also expect punishment. The only legal argument for not complying to do forced labour or accepting any kind of shitty job is if you can prove that you have a medical condition.

There are two main types of forced labour programs. Programs of the first type are meant for reintegration into the labour market. According to the government, the goal of these programs is to teach people “job skills” and let them gain “work experience”. Those special “job skills” are for example: coming in time, working hard enough, cooperating with your colleagues and listening to your boss. In other words: being a perfect worker for capitalists. Even if people have already worked for twenty years, they are still put in these programs. Gaining “work experience” usually means people doing work that could be paid, but they have to do it as an internship instead.

In the second type of program people have to make a contribution to society in exchange for receiving welfare benefits. These programs don’t have a reintegration goal, so the work can be anything the government thinks is useful for society. It can be volunteer work or care-giving. Sometimes it is work that used to be a paid job.

These programs usually have a maximum term for which you have to participate. The programs in governmental work centres can be relatively short, like in Leiden. In principle it is for six weeks, although it can be extended. The internship-like programs usually take longer, up to two years. And some regular jobs start with an unpaid trial period for up to three months. Of course the government can put you in several programs one after another.

Often we have heard that the safety measures normally required at labour situations, were not in order when the work was done by welfare receivers. Special clothing (like safety shoes) was not provided to the workers and safety checks were not done properly. There were several scandals whereby welfare receivers had to clean up poisonous material and were at risk of getting sick, but were not told about the dangers.

There is some history of forced labour in the Netherlands. In the twenties and thirties there were big labour projects, carried out by state companies. The idea of the government back then was to teach poor people how to behave properly. It was also a “charity” project. You had to work to receive welfare benefits. After the Second World War the government made work camps for the unemployed to rebuild the country after the war. In both periods there was resistance against forced labour and the bad conditions in the work houses and the work camps. In 1925 for example, there was a strike of 20.000 workers. In 1965 forced labour was abolished by law.

But in 2004 the law was changed again and it became possible for municipalities to force people to work for free. This was called “social activation”. In 2007 the law was changed again and from then on municipalities had to push people into forced labour programs and volunteer work. In 2013 the king of the Netherlands officially introduced the transformation of the welfare state into the “participation state”, in which every citizen should contribute to society, and if you do not, you should be forced to.

This whole idea of the “participation state” fits in a set of capitalist trends in the Netherlands that are gaining more ground. One such trend is that everyone is more and more obliged to comply to the demands of the labour market, and should learn the special job skills we mentioned before, like listening to your boss, working hard, and so on. Also, you are bombarded with messages that your life is like an “enterprise” in which you have to “invest”. This means that you have to keep learning specialist skills, mostly in your own time, and that you must keep improving yourself as a worker and a person. It can become very personal when people have to fill in tests and “set personal goals”. Both trends apply to workers with paid jobs, students and the unemployed. If you don’t succeed in this capitalist society, which means that you didn’t get a decent job and develop a career, it is because you personally failed, and you individually are to blame.

The government is using the financial crisis to push legislation that they already planned a long time ago. A lot of austerity measures are being applied. Paid jobs are being replaced with unpaid volunteer work. A lot of it is reproductive work, like caring for elderly people. Reproductive work has to be done, so people will also do it for free, because this work is important for society, their families and their neighbours. Of course a lot of this work is now being done by people on welfare for free, often while being forced to. Also, the financial crisis is used as an argument by the government to make jobs more flexible. The jobs that used to be permanent are now temporary. People are being fired when no longer necessary, just how capitalism likes it. Another trend is that unskilled labour jobs, which were done in low wage countries in the past, return to the Netherlands where the work is done by forced labourers.

Of course the lower class people are more affected by these tendencies. Immigrants and people of colour are even more affected on multiple levels as they are a big part of the lower classes, and there is a lot of racism and xenophobia in everyday life and on the labour market. This makes it harder to struggle for a better place in society. Immigrants also have to deal with repression when “integrating” in Dutch society. As of late the government seems to target new refugees for special forced labour programs to “integrate” and gain so called “Dutch work experience”.

Other people that are more affected are people in rural areas, especially in the north east and south east of the Netherlands. The unemployment rate has always been higher there and there is a lot of poverty, so austerity measures hit harder in those areas. Women as a group are also more affected. Single unemployed parents, often single mothers, are one of the poorest groups in society. The reproductive work that is now being cut was done by women mostly, so they lost their jobs. Also the burden of the now unpaid reproductive work is mainly carried by women.

Students don’t receive government funds any more, instead they receive government loans that they have to pay back. This means people with rich parents have better access to education. After finishing school or university it is hard to find a job. Lots of young people with a higher education get stuck in underpaid jobs, or unpaid internships, which are becoming quite normal, also when they are still studying. If people younger than 27 apply for welfare, they can be forced to do unpaid labour indefinitely.

In the last years we have met activists from France, Germany, Belgium and England and we found a lot of similarities with those countries. We also found it was very inspiring to meet with them and share ideas and practices, which is why we are glad to be here in Athens and talk with you as well. The similar trends with forced labour in those other countries are:
1. The idea that you should do something in return for receiving welfare money;
2. Big groups of welfare receivers are being exploited, and have to work for no salary or for a tiny salary (1 euro jobs in Germany);
3. The governments talk about forced labour as if it will help welfare receivers to find jobs, which is bullshit most of the time, because forced labour substitutes paid jobs and there are not enough jobs for everyone to start with;
4. People are forced. If they don’t comply, their benefits will be cut or taken away, while they depend on this money for all their basic expenses.

Of course activists in those countries actively resist the pressure put on them and others to do forced labour, and they have had some successes. Like in England where they banished certain forced labour programs, some private companies withdrew from forced labour programs and hundreds of other organisations signed a statement that they will not participate in these programs.

In all of these countries, and of course also in the Netherlands, a lot of individual people on welfare are struggling against the repression and compulsion of the government. In the last years we met a lot of people in the Netherlands that regularly or structurally called in sick, intentionally worked very slowly or even sabotaged their compulsory work. Also, despite the threat of sanctions, people flatly refused to do forced labour, or published horror stories about their experiences. Many of them could escape the forced labour programs, or where able to make it a bit more bearable.

Collective action is still rare though. Besides our collective, Doorbraak, and the Amsterdam Bijstandsbond (a grassroots union for welfare receivers) there are a few more groups that are critical towards forced labour. The Dutch Socialist Party, although not really socialist in nature, on the national level speaks out against forced labour, as does the biggest union, the FNV. However, in the municipalities where they have aldermen, the Socialist Party actually enforces the system of forced labour, so their criticism is very inconsistent. In the national government they propose less harsh forms of forced labour, but they don’t take a principled stance against all forms of forced labour. The union is working mostly from the top down. They published some reports, organised a few demonstrations and supported a few groups of forced labourers in legal procedures to get salary for the forced labour. The union and Socialist Party don’t really agitate against the repression put on people on welfare, but only against the substitution of paid work by unpaid work. They actually tend to agree with programs of up to three months of unpaid work.

Doorbraak is trying to use the method of organising to get people together to form an active group, like we explained in the beginning of our talk. In Amsterdam and Groningen we succeeded to organise a platform organisation in which people on welfare participated. In Amsterdam this was done in cooperation with the Bijstandsbond and some critical union and Socialist Party members and was called: “Dwangarbeid Nee” (No to forced labour). In Groningen the platform is called “No to forced labour Groningen”. We don’t want to work as a representative union, we want to form horizontal organizations. Assemblies are not common in the Netherlands. It is not common for people to come to meetings, unless they are already politicized. So what we do, in Amsterdam, Groningen and Leiden, is that we go to welfare centres every week and speak to people there, because they are not likely to come to meetings, assemblies or protests. We offer our support and talk with them about their situation to see if they are willing to do something about it. Sometimes we accompany people to their appointments with case managers. Also we do extensive research and publish articles and reports on the internet, in which we try to reveal the names of companies profiting from forced labour. We do protest actions, organise picket lines at official events, speak at city council meetings and organise meetings with people active on a national level.

We have tried to build a more solid national platform, but this didn’t work out. A lot of people have an individualistic mindset and don’t really want to get organised. With some of them we differ too much on an ideological or strategical level to really work together. For example, some of them want to work together with the local government to make the programs “better”, while we want the programs to end. We did succeed in making the issue of forced labour more controversial, also in mainstream media and mainstream political parties, while it was undisputed before. The frame “forced labour” is also more integrated in the political discourse. The Dutch Socialist Party and the union feel they have to do something, although their views lack radical criticism.

Individually some people from our collective and some people we supported didn’t have to go to the forced labour programs, or could leave the programs, because of our pressure. It seems that the municipality, at least in Leiden, is afraid to have Doorbraak people in their centres. The conditions in the forced labour centres became a bit less harsh in the cities where we are active. Extra repression was stopped in Leiden on one occasion, and at least one company stopped working with forced labourers because of our campaign. In Amsterdam the local government promised to end all forced labour. They shut down a few programs, but did continue with some. In Groningen some programs were changed or shut down because of bad publicity.

We have built a solid network of people that we know and who know us, and some come to our protests; even to protests around other struggles. In Leiden the precursor of Doorbraak has been active for more than 20 years, mostly on migration issues. We found that a lot of the migrants and refugees we got to know are also the people targeted by the forced labour programs.

We refine our method of struggle by evaluating our practice, and we have learned a lot about how power politics in municipalities work. We found that other groups from the revolutionary left in the Netherlands also learned from our struggles and practices. People on welfare are overlooked by most of these groups, but in the last years they are slowly integrating them in their political analyses.

We have also found limitations to our approach. Organising is very time consuming, and we are a small group. To be more effective we need more people and more time. Also we are still active in other struggles.

In Groningen and Leiden we haven’t succeeded in bringing forced labourers together in a solid organisation. People that started to organise themselves were excluded from the programs, which was of course a success, but it also meant we could not get a foot in the door at the workplaces. The work centres there are small, with only a few dozens of people working at the same time. In Leiden people have to work in the centre for only six weeks, and new people are coming in continuously. So the pool of people to organise is very small. The government is actively obstructing us in our efforts to get to know people or to find out more about the programs of the work centres, which hinders us a lot.

In general, a lot of people that struggle stop when they reach their individual goal. A lot of people are too busy with just surviving and are too scared to lose their only income if they would become politically active. So most people who worked with us were not doing forced labour themselves but are living under the threat they will have to do so in the future. In Amsterdam we could organise some actions on the workplace, but only for a short time, as people there were also excluded from the programs. But in these cases people still continued to struggle, and we have built a relationship with some of them. Some became part of our collective.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the basic income in the Netherlands. Politicians of different political backgrounds have been promoting their versions of the basic income. Experiments have started in different cities. Some grassroots groups are very enthusiastic, but we are not. The experiments may mean less control and repression for welfare receivers, but they are also about welfare cuts. So the idea of the basic income may be used to implement more budget cuts. We fear that in the end people will have to make ends meet by doing shitty jobs and still be under the control of the government.

Also new are the “work experience integration” programs for newly arrived refugees. It is presented as a way to help people gain so called Dutch work experience. But above all it means that private companies can let refugees work for free instead of paying them. The extent to which refugees are forced to work is not yet clear. For next year we are planning to pay more attention to these new trends in Dutch society.

This is the talk we prepared. Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, please ask.