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Is cheap labour flooding the Netherlands?21 August 2013, by Alexandra Gowling
Dutch Deputy Prime Minister and Social Affairs and Employment Minister Lodewijk Asscher has called on the European Union to create new rules to tackle excesses in the free movement of workers across member states.
In a letter to British newspaper The Independent, written jointly with David Goodheart, Director of the British arm of think-tank Demos, Asscher argues that the numbers of workers are so overwhelming that in some parts of Europe "the dykes are in danger of bursting."
Calling their statement a "code orange" after the orange alert in the Netherlands, issued when rivers rise to alarming levels, they are suggesting that unchecked migration is flooding Europe.
The right to move and work in other member states is one of the founding ideas of the European Union, enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. It wasn’t until this last decade, however, that people started to take advantage of this right.
In 2000, only about 0,1 per cent of EU citizens lived and worked in another EU country. In 2004, however, that all changed when the UK, Sweden and Ireland allowed immediate access to their labour markets for people from the new members states in eastern and central Europe, waiving the seven-year transition period. The Netherlands followed suit in 2007.
The Dutch government had predicted around 18.000 people would take up the opportunity to move to the Netherlands. Now that number is estimated to be two to three hundred thousand, with 150.000 from Poland alone.
From next year, workers from Bulgaria and Romania will be able to live and work in the rest of the EU.
The Dutch government is currently holding back on allowing people from Croatia, which became an EU member on July 1 this year, to enter the Netherlands, but they will not be far behind.
The large increase in numbers from a decade ago is due to the disparate economic levels in the newer as compared to the older member states.
Previously, there was little incentive to move abroad, as economic levels in older members in western Europe were similar. In the newer members from central and eastern Europe, however, average income per head is only a quarter of that in the richer EU states.
This clearly provides a real motivation to move countries, especially for people who worked in lower skilled jobs. As a result, 12 per cent of agricultural and horticultural workers in the Netherlands now come from central and eastern Europe.
Photo by Flickr user Francisco Osorio
Asscher argues that this large-than-predicted movement has become a problem for poorer and less well-educated citizens the Netherlands and other western European states.
"[Dutch workers] are competing against people with much lower wage expectations," he said. "Some of our weakest citizens are losing out in the labour market to better-equipped outsiders."
He also claimed that workers from poorer EU countries may be taken advantage of here, receiving lower wagers, working long hours and perhaps paying high rent for substandard accommodation.
Action has already been taken in the Netherlands, with higher fines for companies that exploit workers in this way, as well as more inspectors to target fraud and rogue employment agencies.
He argues, however, that the Dutch government needs to work together with the EU.
The minister wrote that it was wrong to dismiss comments from people who are affected by these changes as just a typical complaint against "foreigners".
He argued that even if these complaints are exaggerated, they must be taken seriously. "If we don’t," he warned, "they will fuel xenophobia."
He concluded by urging the EU government and other state governments to work to address the downsides of free movement on citizens and economies.
"If we wish to keep enjoying the benefits of free movement, we must be prepared to combat its negative side effects," he said. "This is in the interest of every EU citizen."