The struggle against compulsory labor in Leiden

A forced laborer in action at the opening of the DZB.
A forced laborer in action at the opening of the DZB.
The city council of Leiden has introduced compulsory labor for unemployment benefit claimants. Doorbraak is campaigning against this policy. A chronology.

The original text in Dutch
(january 4th, 2012)

Ce texte en Français

September 8th 2010. A review of the struggle against compulsory labor in Leiden should actually start in Amsterdam. There the Steuncomité Sociale Strijd (SSS – Support committee Social Struggle), in which Doorbraak also participates, started a campaign in 2010 against the pilot project “Loondispensatie” (Wage dispensation) of GreenLeft-alderman Andrée van Es. GreenLeft is a green left-liberal party. By means of this project Van Es puts unemployed persons to work in jobs under the minimum wage. “SSS demands that the minimum wage is maintained. Equal pay for equal work is indeed one of the cornerstones of the social system. It should not be questioned”, the support committee states in a pamphlet. “Now all employees are entitled to a wage according to their respective collective bargaining agreement (CBA). A right gained by our parents and grandparents through hard and commited struggle. What is about to happen is one of the worst forms of demolition of social security. In a time where CEO’s of banks can fill their pockets again, the people on the bottom have to pay the bill. We can’t let that happen!”

February 4th 2011. On this day the committee Work and Finances of the Leiden city council discuss the plans for compulsory labor. Doorbraak participates in the consultation and is applauded by a large number of attendees for its principal rejection of compulsory labor.

The compulsory labor can vary from three months (“opstapbaan”, “an intake job”) to up to 2 years (“participatiebaan”, “a participation job”). But it can be worse, because those who become unemployed and request unemployment benefits are required to work for the municipal government 6 weeks for no pay. If their request is approved, they will retroactively receive unemployment benefits for this period. However, if their request is rejected they’re out of luck.

In an intake job the unemployed has to work for three months for a boss, without receiving the minimum wage, let alone the respective CBA wage. During this “acquaintance or internship period” he will continue to receive unemployment benefits. There is the intention that after this period the person involved will receive normal wage from his boss, who in turn will actually receive this money from the municipal government for a period of 2 years. “This policy should also be attractive for the employer”, according to the municipal council, who as usual cares more about the interests of the businesses rather than the interests of their own citizens. Those who can’t be forced into those intake jobs will for a great deal end up in participatory jobs. There they have to work for up to 2 years under the minimum wage and the CBA wage. The jobs the municipal government thinks they could do are “support work at schools, in (home) healthcare, hospitals, parks, gardens, security and the like. Basically all the work that was done before that fell under the category of “subsidized work” is qualified for the participatory jobs”, according to the plans. This way a whole group of people is kicked down even more. For example the janitor who had a normal job with the according labor rights, but was fired somewhere in the nineties and became unemployed. The municipal government obliged him under the guise of the Banenpool (“jobpool”) and ID-baan(“ID-jobs”) to do the exact same work, but in this case according to the minimumwage, with lesser worker rights. These “jobpool” and “ID-jobs” were systems introduced in the nineties and early 2000’s by the Dutch government to put unemployed people to work in jobs that were subsidized by the state. Around 2006 the janitor was fired again because the ID-jobs were terminated. And now the municipal government wishes to push such a person back into doing the same work, however only receiving unemployment benefits and with no labor rights whatsoever. Impoverishment and wrecking of labor rights directed by the municipal government.

That evening up to 50 concerned citizens of Leiden were present. One of the other persons who used their right to consultation held a very biting speech: “The choice is clear: if the unemployed benefits claimants refuse the labor, their unemployment benefits, which are vital to their physical survival, will be terminated. Refusing compulsory labor means no unemployment benefits, no unemployment benefits means no food, to have no food is to die”, he said. “More compulsion than this is not possible. In the end it is nothing else than putting a gun against someones head and forcing them to do compulsory labor. There is labor, there is maximum compulsion, thus this is compulsory labor in it’s most distinct form, namely being forced to work even without wage. Soon we will see 2 groups of forced street cleaners, one group of persons with a community service sentence and the other group consisting of unemployment benefits receivers. The first group can go home after 240 hours, the other has to continue for 2 years with a possible extension of another 2 years. ”

March 4th 2011. On this day Doorbraak organizes, in cooperation of the Bijstandsbond (“union of unemployment benefits receivers”), a militant meeting discussing the disciplining and humiliation that unemployed persons have to deal with, also in Leiden, and the possibilities for resistance on grassroots level against this.

November 6th 2011. On a meeting of the Bijstandsbond Doorbraak raises the question to Socialist Party (SP) MP Sadet Karabulut and GreenLeft-alderman Van Es how those parties can participate in the implementation of compulsory labor for unemployed through their participation in local city councils. The attitude of the different sections in those parties differs greatly. For instance, the SP section of Sittard-Geleen is campaigning against the evasion of the minimum wage by the local council, while at the same time the SP in Leiden is a part of the local city council and is working on a new policy which forces unemployed into compulsory unpaid labor. In Leiden GreenLeft is a part of the local opposition and takes a principal stand against evasion of the minimum wage, however in Amsterdam GreenLeft-alderman Van Es is the one who is implementing such policies. And again the SP section of Amsterdam is valiantly criticizing such policies. Later the SP national parliamentary section informs us that “the section in Leiden is not tuned to the position of the SP in parliament. We will of course address this issue to them.”

November 7th 2011. In the afternoon 15 activists and sympathizers of Doorbraak hold a picket in front of the DZB-building on the edge of Leiden against the opening of the new Participatory center. This “festive” opening is visited by about 50 administrators, politicians and others interested. They are received with a banner that says “No precarity and compulsory labor” and protest signs with slogans such as “Fight against compulsory labor” and – next to a toilet that was taken along for the occasion – “Down the drain with the Participatory center” and “Compulsory labor is shit”. Also a group of activists was dressed as ragged compulsory laborers and were cleaning the street and doing other useless chores. Leaflets containing information about the protest were also spread by the activists.

People leaving the building told stories which were often blatantly terrible. Someone is already working for eight weeks without any pay whatsoever, in the hope of at some point receiving unemployment benefits. In the meanwhile he survives through the health insurance subsidy he receives. The employees of the participatory center are also not quite enthusiastic about the new plans. They say they “have to” abide by the plans. But they do suffer under it, so they say with a dramatic tone of voice. Some pretend as if they, and not the unemployed, are the real victims of the repressive policy.

One of the attendees of the opening is SP-member of council Louk Rademaker, who tries to point out to Doorbraak activists that it is better if his party participates in the opening of this center than to stay outside of it. Of course he is against the participatory center, so he says, but it turns out that he voted for the center when it was discussed in the city council. And he also voted for the change of policy to deduct 10% from the received amount of unemployment benefits received when living in a rented room (rather than a rented appartement). Confronted by the anger of those who are affected by this he responded in a mathematical bureaucratic manner by saying that it was not a deduction of 10%, but of merely 8,3%. He is defending the policy, because according to him there is no other choice.

Later it turns out that Rademaker is disappointed about the report of the picket on the Doorbraak website. According to him Doorbraak would have demeaned unemployed persons and have given a one sided critique on him and the SP. “Because aren’t we all on the same side?”, he wrote in an emotional letter to Doorbraak. A Doorbraak member stated in a reaction that he too is disappointed, but in the council member himself: “What you, on your turn, don’t take into account, so it seems from your reaction, is that you as a person directly attack me and put me in a more precarious situation. I receive unemployment benefits myself en I have received a letter stating that my income will be deducted by 10% because I am living in a rented room, and I also might possibly have to carry out compulsory labor in the near future. As I understand, you personally as a member of the city council have voted for both measures. No matter how you put it, this makes the discussion for me personally quite emotional: I will have great trouble because of a policy that you are also responsible for. We can pretend that we are obvious comrades, who stand on the same side, but in practice you are voting for my precarity. Put yourself in my shoes. I would think that I have more reasons to be disappointed about you as an SP-city council member (I voted for the SP in the last local elections) than the other way around. For me and other unemployed at Doorbraak this is not an abstract political discussion, but a matter of how I survive and how we can fight together for our survival. Thus how to fight against the measures you have voted for. You stated that during our picket an activist was dressed and acting as an unemployed person: he is in fact unemployed. He should be allowed to act as he wishes, as all in all he mainly offends himself. He does not represent the unemployed of Leiden, he is one of them and he was depicting how we as unemployed are viewed in the municipal government papers. Papers of the Municipal Executive of which the SP is a part of.”

November 17th 2011. The Client Council of Leiden, an organization representing the interest of unemployment benefits claimants, organized a meeting that unfortunately resembled a tv-show with administrators, or a training program for city officials. The voice and input of the unemployed had no place in the entire program. The public had to politely listen to the talks and hardly was allowed any time and opportunity to engage in a principal debate about the national and local wrecking policy. After three long hours the unemployed in the room were bored to death by the technocratic jargon used by the speakers to such an extent that they felt they were just in a session of a compulsory reintegration program.

The activists attending again realized how important it is that the struggle of the unemployed is their own struggle. In leftist protest against the social wrecking policy one should not trust the so called “representatives of their interest” in the middle and upper layers of society, such as the people who were invited by the Client Council of Leiden. Apparently it was a bridge too far for the Client Council to set up a panel with at least one unemployed in it, let alone a panel with at least as much unemployed persons as socalled “representatives”. With each of them an equivalent position as the speaker, behind the table with their own microphone, each of them an introduction that is just as long with the right to extensively answer questions, in stead of only being allowed to ask them.

On the meeting a city official told that unemployment benefits are no longer “a safety net”, but “a springboard” to work. “Activating” unemployed is what’s important, in other words: they should all be pushed towards jobs that aren’t there. They will hardly get any help in that anymore, and should “direct it themselves” as much as possible. But when the city talks about about the bosses of the compulsory laborers, then the municipal government choses a different tone. Bosses have the right to be “unburdend”, because they don’t want “any fuss”. The municipal government wishes to take as much work out of their hands as possible, according to the city official. The “population” that is able to work should do so as soon as possible, he warns. Because “abuse of unemployment benefits” should be stopped. As if unemployment benefits claimants are frauds by definition. In order to force them to work the government uses a, as he describes it, technical instrument: “wage dispensation”, which in facts boils down to nothing more than an evasion of the minimum wage and hollowing workers rights. The whole afternoon continued with this concealing and dehumanizing jargon.”a new mindset”, “customization”, “transparency”, “compartmentalization”, “procurement” and “thinking in terms of efficiency rather than equality”.

In the panel Rob Splint, member of FNV, the biggest Dutch labor union, takes a particularly soft position about compulsory labor. He accepts that unemployed work for “3 to 6 months” without a contract. “But why do you accept that?”, asked one of the attendees. “Because those people have to have some orientation first”, he answers. But shouldn’t every worker first orient himself in the company he starts working? And if so, does that mean we all should work 6 months for free? What keeps the bosses from getting a new set of unemployed after those 6 months, in stead of giving the ones already working there a contract? “Nothing”, the union representative had to admit, “but that is something the municipal government should closely monitor.”

Luckily Doorbraak activists were able to make use of the meeting. They stood at the entrance with protest signs and gave everyone who entered a leaflet with clear criticism on compulsory labor and a call out to contact Doorbraak. Critical conversations with persons attending the meeting were held before, during the break and afterwards. For the attending activists this was more gratifying than the whole official program altogether.

Eric Krebbers