Dutch Employment Agencies Accused of Taking Advantage of Migrant Polish Workers
“The living conditions – catastrophe: Mice running around the kitchen. When I tried opening the fridge, the door came off. You’d get a better sleep on the floor than on the beds provided,” Maria*, a Polish worker in the Netherlands employed by T&S Flexwerk, told CorpWatch.
Maria first arrived in the Netherlands in 2017 where she found temporary work with the help of a succession of employment agencies. All of the agencies promised good wages, sufficient work, and some even promise cheap accommodation – such as T&S Flexwerk (also known as T&S Group).
But these promises are often deceptive, she said. “Management doesn’t take care of the hotel,” says Maria, who was given accommodation through T&S. “When I first arrived at the accommodation with my friend, we had to clean our room prior to moving in. Even once we cleaned the room more or less, it was still a complete tragedy.”
She is not alone. Similar stories about poor living conditions have been shared by other Polish people who live in accommodation provided by the employment agencies.
Sara*, another Polish worker in the Netherlands, had a similar experience with Axidus, a Dutch employment agency based in the town of Capelle aan den IJssel.
While Axidus does not provide accommodation, they recommend a company named Ben Housing on their website. “We lived in what I would describe as a renovated barn. During the day there was heating, but during the night they would shut it off and we could not regulate it,” Sara told CorpWatch. “When we complained, someone came and told us it would be fixed. But in the 3 months of me living there, no one came to fix it.”
Yet other agencies don’t even provide reasonable privacy. “Otto put men and women to live together. There was a little cloth that we could put up to separate us but everything could still pretty much be seen,” says Klara*, a Polish worker who was employed by OTTO Workforce, an Amstelveen-based employment agency, told CorpWatch.
Frank van Gool, OTTO’s founder and CEO, told CorpWatch in a phone interview that he was not aware of Klara’s situation but that he had occasionally received complaints from workers and that the company always did its best to resolve them. “I believe we are the best employer of temp agencies in The Netherlands,” he said in an an interview. “We have a very high satisfaction rate. We measured and last year we had more than 25,000 reviews and the average is 8 or 8.2 and that is of course very good. I am very happy with it.”
None of the other employment agencies returned CorpWatch’s requests for comment.
On an average, there are some 500,000 or more migrants working in the Netherlands in any given year – and Polish workers make up the biggest number. They typically find work through an estimated 14,000 employment agencies in the country that advertise online or through a word of mouth from other Polish workers.
Most of these agencies offer unskilled work in agriculture (such as picking and planting fruits and vegetables), meat and food processing industry, and construction or warehouse logistics (such as the Albert Heijn supermarkets or Bol.com, a retail platform similar to Amazon.)
Brochures and websites for these agencies tend to paint a colorful picture of migrant work in the Netherlands. For example, both Axidus and T&S’ Instagram feeds show pictures of smiling workers doing jobs in fields and warehouses.
Many agencies claim that prospective employees do not need to speak Dutch and that they can bring spouses or parters. The job is further made to sound appealing by guaranteeing immediate starts, 38.5 hours or more of work a week, possibilities of long-term employment, accommodation and free transportation to and from work, as well as supportive supervisors to help bridge any problems with the companies that workers are placed with.
"The country is known for both its picturesque landscapes and modern and innovative urban centers,” Axidus declares on its website. “It is called the “America of Europe” because there is general abundance here, and ordinary people get a living and well. Axidus work will allow you to become an integral part of this system as well as fair earnings.”
But union organizers say that the agencies don’t tell the full story.
“In Poland, a picture is painted of both the job and the house as being a nice place - not too many roommates and the job will be full time and you will have a good salary,” says Willem Dekker, an organizer for Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (FNV), the biggest union in the Netherlands. “Then people arrive in the Netherlands and they find out the job is not full time and they are actually only working 20 hours in the week and the nice house with their own room turns out to be a shared bedroom with a stranger who also has a conflicting shift - so he comes home when you’re trying to sleep.”
The situation has become worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dekker told CorpWatch. “What we’ve seen is 15 people sharing 1 shower cell. Before COVID – that was also disgusting, but with COVID, it became a public health hazard.”
To make matters worse, Dekker says that the housing provided is often part of the employment contract, and workers have rent deducted at prices well above market rates.
Dutch unions have been campaigning for years against the poor living conditions provided by employment agencies to migrant workers – as well as their working conditions. “There are no rules or requirements for starting an agency. I could start an agency tomorrow. It is a very unregulated part of the economy,” Dekker added.
OTTO Work Force
OTTO Work Force employment agency is the biggest employer of workers from the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia in the Netherlands. It has representative offices in each of those countries as well as in Bulgaria and the UK.
In recent years, OTTO Work Force has been criticized heavily by workers and unions over poor living conditions as well as for failing to deliver promised work hours, lack of payment for sick leave or vacation for migrant workers, and docking salaries for a variety of reasons such as rent.
Workers also say that OTTO forces workers to meet unreasonable work quotas, despite the fact that requiring workers to meet quotas is illegal under Dutch law.
Maria*, another OTTO worker, told CorpWatch that she was sent to work in the returns department at G-Star, a Dutch clothing retailer. She was told she had to scan at least 160 returns per hour and a minimum of 524 scans for the whole day.
Sometimes even these numbers did not reflect the real workload. Maria recalled an incident in which she was handed a return of 80 shirts purchased via Zalando (a German e-commerce site). Even though she had to scan all 80 items, she was only allowed to count it as a single return.
Once workers met their daily target, they are allowed to turn on a green light to let supervisors know they had hit their minimum quota.
“Quotas were very important to all of those above us. Once the number of scans per hour wasn’t hitting the set target, the supervisor would tell me: You must meet the target today or I’ll block you.’”
“Some people were so scared of losing their job, they were pretty much working at the speed of light only to meet the set quota,” Maria added. “When there were problems at work – conflicts with the supervisors, etc., more often than not, reaching the work coordinators was difficult. They don’t answer their phones.”
OTTO denies these allegations.
“There isn’t a minimum that you have to do. When you do more than 100 percent, you get a productivity bonus,” van Gool said. “When we see that people are order picking at 85 percent for example, we have a talk with the people – can we help you, do you understand the system?” he added.
Van Gool claims that the company provides job coaches and team leaders to help workers achieve higher productivity and a bonus.
“If someone does understand the system but they tell us that they cannot reach the productivity, we then discuss with them if it wouldn’t be better for them to go to another department or another job,” he said. “I think this is positive.”
Van Gool also claims that OTTO does not require workers to use company housing, and provides a 24 hour hotline for workers to call when they have problems. He also insisted that the rent charges and sick leave policies complied with Dutch law.
FNV and Związek Syndykalistów Polski (ZSP) in Poland are two of the major unions that have taken up this issue. They provide personal consultations for migrant workers, organize local meetings and demand action from the local governments. Many Polish workers that CorpWatch spoke to reported that they were given more dignified treatment after they informed employers that they were in touch with a union representative.
Unfortunately, in many cases, Dekker says that many workers either do not know how to get involved with a union or were hesitant to work with unions for the fear of retaliation or losing their jobs and housing.
The unions have also helped organize protests. For example in early 2011, ZSP together with Priama Akcia, a Slovak union, and Vrije Bond, a Dutch anarchist group, organized protests in front of OTTO’s offices in the Hague as well as in Olumouc in the Czech Republic; Gliwice, Krakow, Opole, Warsaw and Wroclaw in Poland; and in Bansko Brystrica and Presov in Slovakia.
In response, van Gool met with the workers at the company’s main offices in Wroclaw. After a lengthy discussion with the protestors, van Gool left with a promise to investigate the claims but the workers say they never heard back.
“Everybody can have a complaint of course. People can come to me,” van Gool said. “I am happy that I don’t have a lot of complaints but I am really touchable for the people.”
A second wave of protests against OTTO took place in 2015. This time ZSP reported that the workers demanded that the company fulfill “all contractual obligations, stopping the use of illegal regulations, arbitrary deductions, forcing the workers to live in OTTO's housing (which was more expensive than others)."
Van Gool dismissed these protests. “Vrije Bond is an organization which is also known to the Dutch police. They’re an extreme radical organization.”
While the spread of COVID-19 across Europe in early 2020 affected both work availability and housing conditions for migrant workers, it also helped put a magnifying glass to the working and living conditions of migrants.
On May 4th 2020, the Dutch House of Representatives assigned a special task force led by former Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer to come up with recommendations to structurally improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers in the Netherlands.
In November 2020, Roemer presented his report which listed 50 recommendations. “Seasonal workers who come here should be treated as we would like to be treated if we went to work in another country,” Roemer said.
“I talked a lot with Roemer,” says van Gool when asked to comment on the report and its recommendations. “We had around six meetings and ten to fifteen points were coming from my end.” Roemer’s top recommendation was the re-introduction of a licensing system for employment agencies. “It is too easy to set up a staffing agency and there are too many dodgy companies,’ Roemer said. ‘This is why we say agencies and payrolling companies must be licensed.”
The report recommended fining companies that use unlicensed employment agencies, making sure that health insurance and rent are delinked from work contracts, providing workers with private rooms, and the ability to keep housing for a month after they lose their jobs.
FNV campaigned heavily on the matter. At a public event in the Hague in February 2021, Tuur Elzinga, a FNV vice-president, said: “Nine months later there are barely visible improvements. Living conditions are still expensive and appalling and it is still not possible to keep sufficient distance in the workplace. Direct political intervention is necessary to tackle structural problems.'
Finally, on February 20, 2021, the House of Representatives voted in favor of all but one of the recommendations provided by Roemer – that workers should be guaranteed private rooms without roommates.
*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.