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Foreign employees resigned to being underpaid

Claiming rights under Dutch collective labour agreements is too complicated
23 April 2015
New energy plant building site at the Eemshaven seaport in 2010. © Nationale Beeldbank

Foreign employees from Eastern Europe or Portugal, for example, are unlikely to protest against underpayment. This is mainly because they are not formally organized. Furthermore, the collective labour agreements (CAOs) are far too complex for them to work out their entitlements and in practice, the procedures for claiming their rights are too complicated and time-consuming. Employers take advantage of this situation. These are the conclusions of PhD research carried out by labour economist Lisa Berntsen for the University of Groningen. She concludes that the trade unions should do more to mobilize foreign employees to prevent collective labour agreements from being undermined.

The freedom of movement for workers and services in Europe has led to an increase in the number of people working across national borders. In the Netherlands, a lot of migrant workers from Eastern Europe work in sectors such as the building, agriculture and meat processing industries. Two new energy plants at the Eemshaven seaport have attracted thousands of Polish and Portuguese workers, for example. Most of them are hired by companies on a temporary basis using unfair employment constructions which take advantage of differences in legislation and regulations between various European countries. The unions regularly uncover violations of the collective labour agreements.

Amongst themselves

For the purposes of her research, Berntsen spoke to around a hundred employees, trade union leaders and employers, most of them at the Eemshaven seaport. ‘The main problem is that foreign workers are not organized into trade unions. They sort out the smaller problems amongst themselves. Moreover, the collective labour agreements can be so complicated that they just don’t know where to begin.’

Balance of power

Foreign workers very rarely go to their boss, contract in hand, demanding what they are entitled to under the Dutch collective labour agreement. Berntsen: ‘The balance of power is very one-sided. These employees don’t want to risk losing their job or not being hired again. And there is little point in complaining as your contract nears its end. Most problems do not involve extreme exploitation; it’s usually a question of paying a few percent, or in some cases up to 20 or 30 percent below the regular wage for both skilled and unskilled jobs. If they’re seriously underpaid, then they do take action.’

Court cases

Although most of these employees do not belong to a trade union, it is in the unions’ interests to stand up for migrant workers. If they do not, the collective labour agreements will become meaningless, which will ultimately disadvantage the union members too. ‘The trade unions are winning ever more court cases relating to the payment of foreign workers, but the sheer time that these procedures take is making them ineffective,’ concludes Berntsen. ‘Even if they win, the employees concerned have already left the country. I doubt whether they could ever be traced.’

Strengthening ties

According to Berntsen, the trade unions would achieve more by strengthening their ties with foreign employees and making more of an effort to approach them. In addition, she thinks that the collective labour agreements should be simplified: ‘The legislation is far too complex. What’s more, political enforcement of the regulations should be tightened up. Companies are simply taking advantage of the lack of clarity.’

Curriculum Vitae

Lisa Berntsen (Nijmegen, 1987) read International Economics at Radboud University Nijmegen and Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven. She conducted her PhD research at the University of Groningen in the Department of Global Economics & Management of the Faculty of Economics and Business. Berntsen is currently working as a postdoc at Tilburg University, where she is also studying the position in the employment market of undocumented persons in the Netherlands.

Last modified:26 February 2021 4.05 p.m.
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