The distressing situation of migrant workers: "I do not want any deaths today, so be careful"

zwart wit foto Ruben Timmerman

For certain tasks, such as construction work, distribution centres, and greenhouse labour, the Netherlands frequently relies on migrant workers. Migrant workers in the Netherlands are given an employment contract, but the level of protection these contracts provide is questionable. Ruben Timmerman, PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Law, has conducted field research on migrant workers in the Netherlands. In the television investigative programme by KRO-NCRV, Pointer, Timmerman discusses his research.

Migrant workers who fall ill often lose their jobs. Even reporting sick could, until recently, lead to the termination of an employment contract. This is an undesirable situation. Therefore, this year, the court has ruled that a migrant worker cannot be automatically dismissed when sick. However, in practice, this does not always go smoothly.

Undercover investigation

Timmerman conducted research into the conditions of migrant workers in the Netherlands. In the Pointer television programme, a part of his fieldwork is highlighted. Over twelve months, Timmerman went undercover for his research, working in three different sectors, including construction, logistics, and the agri-food sector. He performed various tasks through employment agencies, such as working as an order picker in a distribution centre. Timmerman provides a concrete example in the Pointer programme from his construction work, revealing how dire the situation is: "When I was in construction, my colleague (a migrant worker) and I were sent to a construction project by the employment agency, and the supervisor came to meet us. He knew it was dangerous work but did not have enough of his own people to do the work. So, he sent us away with a crowbar and a hammer to do the job. He said, 'Guys, I do not want any deaths today, so be careful.'"

Timmerman and his colleague started working, but one of the construction supports fell during the job and landed between his colleague's finger and thumb. The colleague screamed in pain and immediately took off his glove. His hand was swollen and blue. Timmerman continues his story: "I said, 'We need to go to the doctor, to the hospital.' However, he did not want to because he was, rightly, afraid that he would simply be replaced by someone else and immediately lose his job. He just put his glove back on and continued working with one hand." During his fieldwork, Timmerman encountered many examples of migrant workers fearing job loss due to illness and being unaware of their rights. He witnessed how easily these migrant workers could be replaced and lose their jobs.

No one feels responsible for migrant workers

In his research, Timmerman was particularly interested in the relationships between employment agencies, migrant workers, and Dutch hiring companies. Employment agencies help migrant workers find jobs. There are around 16,000 employment agencies in the Netherlands, of which the labour inspection has only checked 246 agencies in the last three years. When migrant workers fall ill, employment agencies often do not come to their aid. Timmerman points out that many Dutch companies use multiple employment agencies simultaneously. Thus, a company may use six or seven employment agencies. Timmerman comments on employment agencies: "There is also high competition between those employment agencies, and they always have a hard time finding enough people." Timmerman further explains that these employment agencies also use other employment agencies to ensure they always have enough staff: "So, there is a kind of supply chain of employment agencies, and that has very important consequences for working conditions and the problems we see in the labour market." Timmerman explains that this supply chain of employment agencies creates a significant distance between a company and a migrant worker. Timmerman says this distance is too great and results in no one feeling responsible for migrant workers. Timmerman states, "Because it actually means that companies often have very little insight into the conditions of the employees: who are these people walking around the workplace? And it also makes it easier for companies to distance themselves from those conditions or deny their responsibility."

Short and long-term solutions

In recent years, the government has introduced several policy proposals for better regulation of employment agencies and a better approach to abuses in the labour market. This includes criminalizing labour exploitation and mandatory certification for employment agencies, which currently operate under a self-regulation system. Timmerman says, "In the short term, these are important goals that can help improve the position of migrant workers. However, we also need to look at long-term solutions, including structural changes that can shorten the distance between migrant workers and Dutch companies and ensure that these companies are actively involved and take responsibility for all employees in the workplace, including migrant workers." Timmerman indicates that this may also mean less flexibility, more secure contracts for migrant workers, and a smaller role for employment agencies in the Dutch labour market. There are currently significant shortages at the bottom of the labour market, and these will persist in the coming years. Additionally, there are indications that more and more migrant workers are settling in the Netherlands for longer periods. "Therefore, this problem requires a sustainable long-term solution."

PhD student
Ruben Timmerman, PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Law
More information

Watch the Pointer broadcast: Arbeidsmigrant als wegwerpproduct? (In Dutch)

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