Netherlands: Who will pick your tulips?

27 April 2011
Gazeta Wyborcza Warsaw

The Dutch government wants to tighten up the rules on migrant workers from EU countries. The first victims: the many Poles already living in Holland. That could cost the local economy dear, warns Gazeta Wyborcza.

Cheap labour from Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Bulgaria makes the mills of Holland go round for thousands of companies and entire industries such as agriculture. Among the 160,000 to 200,000 immigrants who moved to the Netherlands after 2004, most were Polish. For the average Dutch person, Poles drink too much, park their cars badly, love partying late into the night, and – the last straw – speak no Dutch. The problem is that without them there would be no one to pick tomatoes, build houses or plant tulip bulbs.

The presence of our Polish compatriots is apparently a particular problem in big cities such as Rotterdam, Utrecht, Amsterdam and The Hague. Marnix Norder, one of the municipal councillors in The Hague, has used the term “Polish tsunami” to describe the Polish presence in the city, estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000. Despite the reaction of the Polish Embassy, the term has been taken up by politicians.

The campaign against migrants is in full swing under the leadership of the Party for Freedom, an anti-immigrant party led by Geert Wilders, which backs the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. That government is looking increasingly less favourably on European integration, and it has the consent of Dutch society.

Unfortunately, this xenophobic climate fanned by the media has reached the corridors of power. Last February, Henk Kamp, the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, said in the Dutch daily De Telegraaf that immigrants from eastern Europe who are homeless and unemployed should be sent back home, or expelled if they refused to leave.

At the start of April the same minister presented to Parliament a list of sensible proposals to better regulate the situation in this sector of the labour market. Kamp says he wishes to do away with fraudulent employment agencies that flout the law and force migrants to work in substandard and exploitative conditions. The proposals are also aimed at what is known in Amsterdam and The Hague as “benefit tourism”, and would affect Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians who come to the Netherlands in search of a better life, but who, when they lose their jobs (or fail to find one), soon find themselves on the street, where they survive on social assistance.

The minister is thus proposing that migrants from EU countries without the means to support themselves would lose, after three months, the right to stay in the Netherlands. The Poles and Romanians – but Germans and French citizens too – who remain jobless for three months would have to say goodbye to the land of windmills and tulips.

In addition, all migrant workers from EU countries would have to register with the immigration offices. Local authorities would then be responsible for checking their housing conditions (cases are known of up to twenty Polish and Romanian migrants living crammed together in one apartment). For employers who defraud migrants with their offers of “food and housing” at inflated prices, punishments will be severe. Kamp also wants access to social benefits to be reserved for people who master the Dutch language.

The Polish government has been quick to react, declaring that many proposals of the Dutch minister border on discrimination. “We are disappointed, and we hope that discriminatory laws will not come into force in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. We also expect the European Commission to look very carefully at this case,” the spokesman for the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Marcin Bosacki, said recently.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent to The Hague an official letter stating that the idea of deporting unemployed Poles from the Netherlands calls into question one of the fundamental freedoms of the EU, that of the free movement of people. On this point, Warsaw is counting on the support of Brussels. Moreover, in late February, Viviane Reding, the Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, warned The Hague against any attempt to violate the community rules.

The attitude of the Dutch has angered Polish organisations inside the Netherlands. Małgorzata Bos-Karczewska, operator of the Polish community website portal and president of the Association of Polish Experts in the Netherlands (STEP), published a scathing article on the hypocrisy of the Dutch in the prestigious daily NRC Handelsblad. Entitling her paper “Work or down your tools!”, she advises Poles in the Netherlands to move to Germany, which will open up its labour market in May 2011.

Producers in the southern Netherlands are crying out in dismay. If the Poles leave, they warn, there will be nobody to pick strawberries and apples: just the Dutch, who are unwilling to “stick their hands in the dirt”.

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