The abuse behind a cheap supermarket cucumber

Karin Astrid Siegmann listen to an interviewer's question during the Studio Erasmus talk show.
Campus garden Woudestein in the sun.
Alexander Santos Lima

Insecurity, low wages and long working days. Migrant workers often have a tough time in Dutch agriculture and horticulture. How can that be? Economist Karin Astrid Siegmann specializes in the analysis of labour and gender relations. She tells Studio Erasmus what causes the abuses in this industry and the role of the big supermarket chains in this.

The majority of workers in Dutch horticulture are migrants from Eastern Europe. "These are EU citizens just like us, but they are treated as second-class citizens," the researcher says.

Regulated precarity

Migrant horticultural workers have a very weak position in the labour market. "The majority work for a grower through employment agencies. The collective agreement of employment agencies is different from other collective agreements. There is much more flexibility. It was once conceived as a win-win situation for employer and employee. Only for employees, it never actually works out."

Karin Astrid Siegmann guesting bij Studio Erasmus.

The abuse behind a cheap supermarket cucumber - Studio Erasmus

The idea behind this 'phased employment contract' is to make you more permanent over time. The only problem is that there are all kinds of tricks to get around this. Siegmann: "Often people just get fired after a certain period of time. Or they keep working for the same grower but through a different temp agency. As a result, they never get further on the road to more permanence. There are a lot of laws in the Netherlands that make flexibility and precarious working conditions legal. I call that: regulated precarity."

Karin Astrid Siegmann talks during the Studio Erasmus talk show.
Arie Kers

Employer and landlord at the same time

Another aspect where things go wrong is the 'bed & bread' arrangement. The employment agency then has a dual role for migrant workers, as a provider of both work and housing. "That seems fine because migrant workers do not know the housing market here. It only creates great dependency. If they lose their jobs, they also lose their homes right away. And that still happens quite often."
Is a whole industry rigged to squeeze these people out as effectively as possible? "That's nicely put," the researcher says. "Sometimes, it is even the case that employment agencies earn more from hiring than from actually having them work in the greenhouses."
According to Siegmann, this has to do with the Dutch tax system: "For people coming from abroad, you can deduct certain costs, such as housing, from tax. The higher the rent, the more you can deduct. That way, you can keep costs down for the grower and earn double as landlord and employer."

Supermarkets are the 'villains'

Yet employment agencies are not the big culprits in this story. Siegmann then looks mainly at the role of supermarkets. "In the Netherlands, Jumbo and Albert Heijn together have a 60% market share. This huge position of power allows them to put pressure on the agricultural sector to keep supermarket prices as low as possible. And who are the victims of that? That's the migrant workers at the bottom of the chain."
"If I were writing a play instead of a scientific article, the supermarkets would probably be the villains in it. On the one hand, the government has created laws that cause this misery. On the other hand, there are international laws that prevent the formation of a monopoly or cartel. The problem is that these laws are not applied to supermarkets, assuming that consumers benefit from low retail prices. That is where so much power is concentrated in one place. In that sense, the supermarkets are really the culprits."

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Researcher Karin Astrid Siegmann on the power position of supermarkets and workers at the bottom of the labour market.
Karin Astrid Siegmann - 2022

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