The Poles and Their “Un-Dutch” Work Practices

We’re immediately back today to the “Polish guest-worker” theme, and this time in an established EU-land where the gates for such labor have not been thrown wide open with last May’s accession of the ten new member-states (logical, as that’s going to be the case for every “older fifteen” member-state we talk about other than Ireland), namely the Netherlands. Nonetheless, it seems that the spectre of Polish labor is making its presence felt here, too, as Martin Visser reports in one of those rare on-line articles from the leading Dutch business newspaper, Het Financiële Dagblad, that you’re allowed to read in exchange for free registration on the site (Union Fears the Invisible Poles).

This time, in keeping with what you’d expect from knowing about the Netherlands’ continuing restrictions on “new-member” labor, we’re dealing not with the macro level, as we were yesterday, but with the micro level, and specifically temporary workers at distributions centers run by the country’s leading supermarket chain, Albert Heijn. The nation-wide union organization, the FNV, is upset that Albert Heijn is paying these temporary employees according to the cheaper rates contained in a previous collective labor agreement (in Dutch known as a “cao,” for collectieve arbeidsovereenkomst) for temporary workers, when it insists that they should be paid according to the “cao” concluded with Albert Heijn. For its part, Albert Heijn management argues that that Albert Heijn-specific “cao” has now expired, so that the temporary-worker “cao” is the one currently in force. The two sides can’t even agree on how many temporary employees this dispute affects: the FNV says 1,400, Albert Heijn says 700.

(By the way, that link I just provided to the FNV website is to its English section, so if you want you can poke around to see what this Dutch FNV is all about – “FNV” itself stands for “Federation of Dutch Unions.” The FNV’s chairman, Lodewijk de Waal, is even very much in style with his own weblog, but that, alas, is only in Dutch.)


Anyway, it seems that the time for talk is passed and the time for action has begun, and if Albert Heijn does not accept the FNV’s ultimatum to start paying these workers according to the Albert Heijn “cao” by Friday noon, it will start strike action as it asks the “shopping public” to “declare its solidarity with the temporary workers who are victims of the green-grocer mentality” of Albert Heijn. The key here, though, is that the FNV is taking this action on behalf of these temporary workers largely in spite of the latter’s own preferences. It seems that they’re happy enough with what they’re paid, and would simply prefer to keep on being able to work and be paid that. So very un-Dutch; they must be foreigners. The Albert Heijn spokesman did shed a little light on that question: “In our distribution centers around 40 nationalities work. And that has been true for years,” he said, adding “Twenty to twenty-five percent are Poles, but there’s no deliberate strategy behind that.”

Indeed, it seems that Albert Heijn doesn’t go out deliberately trying to hire Poles; that’s up to the temp agencies that provide this labor. But the temp agencies do prefer Poles – at least Polish citizens with German passports who therefore are allowed to work in the Netherlands now on the same basis as the Dutch. (Most such Poles, it seems, are out of Silesia and of German descent, so that’s how they got those door-opening German passports.) And they prefer Poles because, as their brochures boast, they are “hard workers with a flexible approach to work and a low rate of absence due to sickness.” In all, they have “higher productivity than Dutch employees,” with no sort of “9-to-5 mentality.”

It’s not that these Poles, or any other visiting workers from the newer EU lands, are that much cheaper, since the difference at dispute between Albert Heijn and the FNV (i.e. between the temp workers “cao” and the general Albert Heijn “cao”) would be trifling to anyone who doesn’t make their living arguing about it. Instead, these guest workers have over-all a much better attitude to work, and it is that which is supposed to be so “un-Dutch.”

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