Tesseltje de Lange en Pascal Beckers voor Berchmanianum
Tesseltje de Lange en Pascal Beckers voor Berchmanianum

Inhumane conditions surrounding migrant workers

Sleeping ten to a room, in danger of losing your income overnight, or struggling to get the care you need. These are examples of the degrading conditions migrant workers in the Netherlands face on a daily basis, say researchers Pascal Beckers and Tesseltje de Lange. For more than two and a half years, based on the university-wide network Radboud University Network on Migrant Inclusion (RUNOMI), they have led an interdisciplinary research study on the effects of COVID-19 measures on migrant workers in the Dutch-German border region. In the hope that after 30 years of abuses surrounding migrant workers, their findings would lead to structural improvements precisely in the midst of a health crisis.

For this project, entitled Migrants on the frontline, members of RUNOMI and the Centre for Migration Law spoke to some 300 migrants, businesses, and agencies in the agriculture, horticulture, meat and distribution sectors: the crucial sectors that had to keep going during the pandemic to meet the basic needs of the Dutch population. They found that the conditions under which migrants work and live are often sub-standard when it comes to health and safety.

De Lange: “Human dignity is often insufficiently prioritised in the way we make migrant workers do this work. Rooms with far too many people, and people even having to share mattresses. There are also some good practices, but these only represent a small section of the market affiliated with temporary employment agencies. These companies follow the rules and want to do the right thing. But there are also lots of companies that focus on business as usual and don't want anything complicated that costs too much money. Every five years, another research study comes out that says: what a disgrace, we are a prosperous country, and it is not true. But in the end not much changes.”

Portretfoto Tesseltje de Lange

Vets raised the alarm about people not doing well

De Lange mentions the example of abattoirs where things were not properly organised for the staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the vets overseeing the welfare of the animals who alerted authorities that the employees were not doing well. De Lange: “Employees who worked on the assembly line could not possibly keep one-and-a-half metres distance during the pandemic. Outbreaks were the order of the day in these places. To continue to offer protection to workers, the company created a one-way route to the resting area. However, this route was so long that it took up people’s entire break. What they should have said in that situation was: let that assembly line slow down; we need to give people longer breaks. Doing so would have brought production down, but people's welfare should be more important than making sure that every customer gets their piece of meat. But no one said that.”

‘You can't just put up that XXL distribution centre and say: this is where people will be working’

Portret Pascal Beckers

Beckers: “These are structural problems in the living and working conditions of migrants that result from a heavy focus on economic policies. If you can make money that way, surely you should do it? Another example are the many XXL distribution centres that have opened in the Netherlands in recent years, the mega-halls from which all our parcels are distributed and transported. As a rule, the opening of these centres does not include a provision plan for the people who will be working there. There is a complete lack of long-term ethical awareness.”

One of the ideas that emerged from the RUNOMI project was to create a test to prevent entrepreneurs from opening a distribution centre unless they formulate a provision plan. Beckers: “After all, if you attract new employees, you also need to provide housing, doctors, schools, and recreation. You can't just put up that distribution centre and say: this is where people will be working.” De Lange: “During the course of the project, we also shared points for improvement with the sector, including communicating a provision plan to the temporary employment agencies. In am also involved with a new law concerning the certification of temporary employment agencies, and I try to let my voice be heard in the media.”

Social Impact

Beckers: “What all RUNOMI members have in common is their desire to have social impact. With over 100 researchers from all faculties, we are one of the largest international centres on migration and migrant inclusion issues. It does show how broad the migration issue is, and how many different perspectives you can take.”

Starting in June, Beckers hopes to explore cooperation around labour migration across Dutch-German borders in a subsequent RUNOMI project in collaboration with the Hochschule Rhein-Waal in Kleve. The objective is to look at how to improve, among other things, housing, facilities, and social aspects for people working in the Netherlands and living in Germany

Photos: Duncan de Fey

Text: Annette Zonnenberg