Saturday 06 June 2020

Europe’s seasonal workers are being forgotten in the corona crisis

Photo: Depositphotos.com

The corona crisis affects everyone, not least of which the thousands of Polish and other temporary workers in the Netherlands. They are now losing their jobs and their homes, and are being excluded from financial bail-out schemes. No-one is listening to their cry for help, writes Malgorzata Bos-Karczewska.

Stories about EU labour migrants in the Netherlands are always driven by economics. The current big question makes this all too clear: If the Poles don’t come, nobody will harvest the asparagus.

Distraught growers wonder if their crops will be left to go to seed? Branch organization LTO is investigating the problems facing the sector. But who cares about the fate of Polish and other temporary workers in the Netherlands who are supposed to be doing the work?

When the prime minister Mark Rutte said, ‘We will not let you down’ did he address all the residents of our country? The government’s emergency plan to keep jobs does not regulate temporary labour migrants. They are the forgotten people in this crisis.

Recession

Many companies affected by a significant drop in demand are ceasing production and kicking out their unwanted workers on temporary contracts.

The recession is inevitable and unemployment among flex workers will increase, the government’s CPB economic think-tank warned last Thursday. Certainly not good news for EU migrant workers.

Here, as a rule, Poles, Romanians and others work for low pay on short flexible terms, sometimes one week or or zero-hour contracts. The employment agencies also arrange housing. The agency clause in a contract of uitzendbeding or ‘no work – no pay’ is now having dire consequences. Lose your job and you are also likely to lose your home.

Stuck

Many are ending up homeless on the streets, looking for scarce work and housing. Some are ill. But thanks to the corona crisis, they cannot return to Poland, Romania or Portugal. There is hardly any transportation for a start.

Concerned Polish parents have been contacting us, asking if they can pick up their offspring by car. Their children want to leave. They would prefer two weeks of mandatory quarantine in Poland than being exposed to the virus in the workplace in the Netherlands.

If you feel sick, you have to stay at home – that is the most important anti-corona rule brought in by the Dutch government. But if you are on a temporary contract, will you be paid if you call in sick? No, you are more likely to lose your job.

So some continue to go to work and officials do not pay any attention to sneezing or coughing. After all, the work must get done.

At some distribution centres, Polish and other EU workers – sick or not – are forced to work extremely long hours, because the customer is king and is hoarding. Is it wise to work such long hours? It takes more energy to build up immunity now.

And if you live in a small house with eight others, which has been provided by your employer, how can you recover and follow home isolation rules anyway?

Poles speak up

Polish migrant workers fear for their health, are afraid of contamination. Some feel responsibility for others.

‘I work with 100 people in a team at an AH distribution centre. How can we work safely?,’ one worried worker wrote to Polonia.nl.  ‘Some of us don’t have gloves, even those who pack products for online orders. It is impossible to keep a distance of 1.5 metre. How can we be sure that someone is not ill?’

In one case we are aware of, a team of 11 people working at a laundry in Eindhoven refused to sort contaminated bed linen from a hospital without precautionary measures. They were then fired.

‘I work in a hotel in Rotterdam. There are no disinfectants, just gloves,’ said another.  ‘What about the common sense and responsibility of the employer for employees?’

Indispensable

These cheap EU workers are now indispensable. While many Dutch people are at home, the Poles, the Romanians and the Bulgarians who can, are at work.

These ‘cheap Polish labour migrants’, the ones so often accused of defrauding the Dutch social security system, are the order pickers, sorters, truck drivers and cleaners helping to keep the Netherlands going.

They are the ones who will be called in to pick the tomatoes, the strawberries and the asparagus because Dutch farmers need them.

But in return, the government must take care of them. The government must protect them too.

Supermarkets can be fined up to €4,000 if they do not create a safe environment for their customers. But why not bring in fines for for the staffing agencies and their clients who fail to comply with the RIVM corona guidelines on the work floor, in housing and in transport to work?

It is not just a moral appeal. The Netherlands should realise: their health is our health. It is only by acting together that we can beat corona.

Malgorzata Bos-Karczewska is a Polish-Dutch journalist and editor-in-chief of Polonia.nl a website for Poles in the Netherlands

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