Just one study into possible exploitation of migrant workers. The counter at the Inspectorate SZW, charged with checking labor exploitation, has stopped this year. Last year, already a low point, the counter stood at four investigations. And that while the number of reports of labor exploitation in slaughterhouses, distribution centers and greenhouses has only increased in recent years.
The labor migrant in the Netherlands is almost alone, that much is clear. Brought in with often nice words about salary, housing and working hours, many quickly disappear from the public eye. The practice is raw: locked up too much in small and much too expensive houses on holiday parks, transported early in the morning with blinded vans to a greenhouse or abattoir, and miserable and sometimes not paid at all. The stories are, unfortunately, well known. Politicians look away, the agencies that are supposed to fight exploitation are failing.
The way for these victims to a complaints desk (trade union, inspectorate, justice) is not easily found, often because of the bureaucratic complexity of the Dutch system for this, or for fear of losing the job and thus the meager income altogether. The understaffing of the judicial system and the inspections make the chance of being caught for the exploiters extremely small. And if they do get caught, they often get away with a fine rather than prosecution for exploitation and human trafficking.
The SWZ Inspectorate now advocates including labor exploitation as a separate offense in the Criminal Code. Labor exploitation is now a form of human trafficking under the law. The problem is that an exploiter is difficult to prosecute as a human trafficker, because the crime must contain specific elements such as coercion, the victim must have been recruited, transport or housing arranged, poor working conditions, financial advantage for the boss. Labor exploitation, such as the Inspectorate often encounters, rarely meets all the elements.
However well-intentioned the Inspectorate’s plea may be, amendment of the law takes time. And there isn’t. It is also the umpteenth official response to the problem. It was previously established that supervision falls under several authorities and they do not always share information with each other. Last October, the ‘Instigation Team for the Protection of Migrant Workers’ came up with a series of recommendations, such as the recommendation to prepare an annual report on the situation of labor migrants. Fine, but again a paper exercise.
The fight against labor exploitation has become bogged down in a battle between the institutions. The Court of Auditors accuses the Inspectorate of doing too little with the extra millions it has received since 2018. The National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings complains about the small number of cases that are brought in. And the Inspectorate, in turn, now blames the Criminal Code.
Of course, it must be checked whether the toolbox that is available to the Inspectorate contains the right resources. And of course the Inspectorate must use the extra millions efficiently against exploitation. Better cooperation between controlling and investigating authorities? Please, from now on.
It makes you despondent, especially since the migrant worker who is being exploited does nothing at all with this bureaucratic game of ‘black pete’. Enough said, in short. Use all means to combat the exploitation of this extremely vulnerable group as effectively as possible. In a way that is worthy of a civilized country like the Netherlands.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 24, 2021