Tilburg is a hotbed for government-sponsored forced labour programs, most recently in the deployment of Ton Wilthagen’s parallel labour market construction. In promotion of this idea, the municipality has become the latest guinea pig for making the receiving of benefits conditional on labour; a phenomenon which is inherently degrading and results in subsistence below acceptable standards.
Pioneered by Tilburg University Professor Ton Wilthagen, the parallel labour market is hoped to function as follows. New jobs are created in a separate (and as the name suggests, parallel) labour market. The workers sought out are benefit recipients or people who traditionally struggle to access the labour market (the disabled, the jobless, etc.). The labour they are coerced into doing consists of that which is not “productive” enough to make a profit in the regular economy. Thus the idea is that more people have jobs, and unprofitable but “socially necessary” work gets done.
In 2020, StartFoundation (a “social development organization” seeking to raise employment levels) and Cedris held a national competition called the Work Innovation Prize, in search of ideas for the parallel labour market. The competition, judged by Ton Wilthagen among others, sought employment opportunities for “individuals with a great disadvantage in the labour market who can hardly obtain or keep a sustainable job on the regular labour market”. The winners of the contest were The Circular Hub, a project that converts waste into raw materials, and The Care Hub, which provides for discontinued care services such as elderly accompaniment.
Despite the recency of this competition, Tilburg is no stranger to similar forced labour constructs. Local Kringloops employ a wide variety of individuals. Some take pleasure in their job, which they have selected as their ideal occupation, however this is most certainly not the case for everyone. In conversation with these employees, I learned that many were formerly jobless people forced to work if they wanted full benefit access. Many were distraught over how little they were paid during regular hours, with some claiming pay of only 12 cents an hour for overtime work.
Other employees were disabled and voluntarily sought out this type of arrangement in connection with their disability benefit. For some this is because they find it fulfilling, however for others this was the only type of arrangement where they felt their disability was accommodated for. According to these workers, it is precisely because their employment is connected to disability benefit receipt that their supervisors are willing to accommodate their disability. Effectively this is being thankful for scraps: the labour market is only making room for disabled people to exploit them. And accommodation of one’s disability should be a guaranteed human right, not a bargaining chip to accomplish non-profitable work.
Another example in the Tilburg area is Refugee Team, an organization located in Eindhoven that operates with the intention of fostering integration into Dutch society. Their program consists of subjecting participants to “volunteer work” (ironic) at events like marathons and festivals and providing personal coaching, for example on one’s CV. With regards to individuals taking part in the program, some are really volunteers who were connected to the organization through family members of local language classes, but half are required by the municipality to volunteer if they want to access their respective benefit.
Wilthagen frames the program deceptively; it sounds like the creation of new jobs so as to support employment for those who seek it (and therefore result in poverty reduction and improved living standards). In actuality however, as Gijsbert Vonk writes, “the disciplinary objective, as it were, drives away the social objective of the benefits policy”. Society’s most vulnerable may not access their benefits unless they work, and at that, their jobs are ones not deemed good enough for the regular economy.
What’s more, article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) prohibits forced labour including “labour extracted under menace of any penalty and performed against the will of the person involved”. Given that the right to social security is considered fundamental by the UN, ILO, and EU, the revocation of welfare does not constitute the removal of a privilege but the denying of a human right. This has been supported by case law a number of times. In 2012, the Czechia government created a law dictating that persons who had been unemployed for three months be mandated to engage in “socially useful work”. The Constitutional Court compared this instrument to the state’s treatment of convicted criminals. They stated that this did not serve to re-integrate jobless persons, but instead intensified the social exclusion they face; it was ruled unconstitutional.
Closer to home however, the opposite ruling has taken place a number of times. In one case, the Zeeland-West Brabant District Court took issue with a forced labour contract but only because it did not tailor the work to the individual circumstance of the benefit recipient. The Arnhem Court similarly found that these activities were conducive to labour market reintegration and that article 4 does not apply because the threat of the measure was not “so severe that it creates [psychological] compulsion to do the work”. From these cases, it’s clear that the Dutch courts feel legislator’s use of forced labour is constitutional, however whether this will remain static will be made clearer as more international cases emerge.
Perhaps a different framing of the cases may lead to their being ruled as unconstitutional. In the case of Zarb Adami v. Malta, the plaintiff had been subjected to jury duty a number of times and argued that he was subjected to duties most other persons did not have to do. He felt this was in violation of ECHR article 4, as well as article 14 (anti-discrimination), and the court ruled in his favour. They found that he and other similar persons were treated differently than the majority of the population without objective and reasonable justification for the treatment. If we apply the same logic to the parallel labour market, benefit recipients are being treated differently than the rest of the Dutch population for engaging with their fundamental right to social security. This is not an objective or rational justification to discriminate against them and impose labour contracts.
The basis of our society is the idea that we owe the world our labour and it is only through work that we can access communal resources and care. This is a flawed foundation for any society. It ties our value to our contribution to capitalism, specifically the capital owners and not ourselves and our communities. Nevertheless, the parallel labour market is not loyal to even this cracked foundation. Framed as state-sponsored benevolence, it is actually a way to extract labour from precisely those people whose wellbeing the state welfare system claims to protect. This is effectively a program that has as its goal preserving the dominance of the capitalist state.
About the author: Ryan London is based in Canada but formerly lived in Tilburg, where she obtained a Masters degree in Labour Law, specifically for Dutch and Canadian sex workers. Her past research projects have focused on workers’ rights, specifically in online contexts and for those with marginalized identities, gender and otherwise. She worked for many years at a anti-sexual violence centre where she came to understand anti-oppressive frameworks and now applies them to her work and interpersonal relationships. During her time at Doorbraak, she completed a research internship on Dutch forced labour constructs for the jobless, striving to understand European and Dutch jurisprudence on forced labour.