Dutch immigration Overflow

Posted: September 3, 2013 in Immigration
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Worries about workers from eastern Europe are changing Dutch politics

Aug 24th 2013 | EEMSHAVEN |From the print edition

After a year of recession, with unemployment rising past 7%, the Dutch are increasingly resentful of immigration and of the European Union’s rules that make it unavoidable. Last week the vice-prime minister, Lodewijk Asscher, tapped the resentment. In a newspaper opinion piece co-written with David Goodhart, a British pundit, Mr Asscher likened rising migration to a “Code Orange”, Dutch parlance for a severe flood warning. “In some places,” he wrote, “the dykes are on the point of breaking.”

Mr Asscher represents the Labour Party half of the Netherlands’ centrist coalition, led by the Liberal prime minister, Mark Rutte. Both parties are threatened by anti-immigration rivals: the Liberals have been leaking voters to the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, while Labour has lost even more support to the far-left Socialists. Under EU rules, work-permit requirements for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are due to expire on January 1st, and Labour is worried that an influx of new immigrants would expose it to attack.

The dyke-break metaphor is a hoary one in Dutch politics, but it touches deep roots. As Simon Schama observed in “The Embarrassment of Riches”, a history of the Netherlands’ golden age, such imagery abounds in the literature of the country’s 16th-century war of independence. It blended the political threat to the country’s existence with the physical one. During the euro crisis Mr Wilders slammed Mr Rutte’s government for “throwing money over the dykes” to bail out Greece. Another Labour politician has complained of a “tsunami of east Europeans”.

The actual complaints are more prosaic. The number of people from formerly communist EU member states living in the Netherlands is still small, for a country of 17m, but it has shot up since the EU enlarged in 2004 (see chart). Amid a prolonged slump and record numbers of bankruptcies, Dutch construction workers complain that they cannot compete with foreigners willing to accept low wages.

Studies commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs show that most east European immigrants take jobs that no Dutch worker would accept, such as picking vegetables in greenhouses. They pay more in taxes than they claim in benefits. The government blames the problems on shady recruitment firms, which dock workers’ pay for housing costs or otherwise maltreat them. Mr Asscher promises to crack down on such abuses.

Unions say the problems run deeper. Almost all foreign employers at Eemshaven, they claim, were paying wages below the rates agreed in industry-wide collective bargaining; they win contracts with such low bids that it would be impossible to follow Dutch labour law and make a profit; long chains of contractors obscure pay rates from regulatory scrutiny.

For the Freedom Party and the Socialists, meanwhile, Mr Asscher’s approach is a useless halfway measure. They want a return to a strict regime of work permits to keep low-wage workers out—even if it means flouting EU rules.

At the core of the growing Dutch anxiety are abstract arguments, not practical ones. The Netherlands is a small, wealthy country with generous social welfare, where wages and benefits have traditionally been settled in national bargains between employers, workers and government, a system named after the very “polders” (reclaimed tracts of land below the water line) which surround the plants in Eemshaven. It has struggled to absorb previous waves of immigration. Now the EU has opened a channel between that orderly and pampered world and a labour supply which is used to far worse pay and conditions. Dutch workers are trying to imagine just what it would take for those levels to equalise.

From the print edition: Europe

Find the original article here.


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