Update! Join in a quick online solidarity action with Doorbraak targeting the owner of the strawberry farm using the contact form on his website and tweet his mate Jan Broertjes the mayor of Midden-Drenthe who also supports workfare. More details on the poverty profiteering happening there in the blog below.
Two members of Boycott Workfare recently visited the Netherlands after an invitation from anti-workfare activists based there to share what we have been doing in the UK. We spent two days with Doorbraak, the group which organised the visit, giving talks in the evenings in Amsterdam and Leiden. In Amsterdam we stayed at one Doorbraak member’s home which was just on the edge of the Jordaan district where unemployed people rioted back in the 1930s.
Doorbraak, which translates in English to ‘breakthrough’, was formed back in 2007 by people who had been involved in migrant struggles. They wanted to start a new group which brought together different groups of people on the different issues we face and ‘turn the world upside down, organise from the bottom up!’ (which rhymes in Dutch). Over the last 3 years they have been taking action against workfare in Amsterdam and Leiden, after militant research they had conducted about the crisis and how it was affecting people uncovered this issue. For some activists in the group who had been very involved in migrant struggles, they were now also acting from their own direct experiences.
Meeting Doorbraak, exchanging our stories of workfare and our actions against it was hugely enjoyable, informative, and inspiring. We had known nothing about how workfare has been playing out in the Netherlands or the grassroots organising which is challenging it and so the chance to meet people in person, discuss this and make connections was invaluable. The parallels between the destruction of welfare in the Netherlands and the UK, and the impoverishment and exploitation of claimants through workfare and sanctions in the Netherlands and the UK were striking. We would describe a government policy, scheme, or bullying tactic and hear of its equivalent in the Netherlands. But there are some key differences in how both countries implement workfare: in the Netherlands, workfare is organised separately by each local authority, so the schemes vary from place to place; and, unlike the UK, the Netherlands has forced labour centres in which hundreds of claimants are forced to attend and work.
We heard a number of horrific stories about workfare in the Netherlands which clearly illustrate the exploitation, racism, and undermining of workers rights of workfare. In one factory, disabled people who had been paid workers with rights and pensions had been sacked and claimants were now forced to cut up sponges all day for no wages. They were not given face masks to protect them from the dust. 80-90% of people on workfare in the forced labour centre in Leiden are migrants. Doorbraak members knew many of these people already from their migrant solidarity work, they had known them when the were locked up in detention centres and now trapped in the forced labour centres. The ‘guards’ of the centre will sanction their benefits if they heard the migrants speaking a language other than Dutch. We also heard how these ‘guards’ are ex-police and prison guards recruited for their aggressiveness.
During our trip Doorbraak received a report about a strawberry farm using workfare and taking poverty profiteering to new levels. The strawberry farm owner not only gets forced unpaid labour on his farm, but he receives a payment for each forced worker he takes on. He has also hired out the people on workfare to some of his friends for an hourly fee taking in yet more money. He also fraudulently claimed money from the government for making his workplace accessible to people with disabilities.
But we also heard of loads of inspiring actions and organising that Doorbraak and other groups do to challenge workfare. In Amsterdam we visited the office of De Bijstandsbond, a claimants union, located in what was once a squatted printing factory. The view from the roof is probably the best in Amsterdam. The group provide practical support for claimants dealing with benefit issues. At Doorbraak’s HQ in Leiden we were able to take a tour of their actions through the props that were on display. One of their main props is a toilet which has become a well-loved mascot for the group and has placards to accompany it on actions reading ‘Schijt aan dwangarbeid’ (Sh*t on workfare) – which works really well as a chant as well – and ‘Bruin 1? Doorspoelen graag!’ (Brown one? Flush it down!). An effigy of the manager of the forced labour centre made from the sponges cut by the people on workfare which people were encouraged to pelt. The group has held May day festivals outside the Leiden forced labour centre which saw the centre close and the claimants get the day off. After these successful actions the group have been banned from going near the centre, with spotter cards with their faces kept by the security staff, but Doorbraak have heard from people inside that the atmosphere there improved as a result of the actions.
In another fun action saw the group respond to a competition organised by the forced labour centre calling for ideas on how to get more free labour – the prize being offered was free labour and office space. Doorbraak submitted their own proposal saying they would make propaganda against forced labour, collectively and without any money. Their proposal seems to have been ignored, but the group went ahead and held their own rival finale to the competition when the winner was announced (they also went ahead with their ‘business plan’ and made a set of 5 anti-workfare T shirts that they give to people on workfare for free). At another event saw a meeting of 40 people challenging a local politician who was responsible for workfare in Amsterdam calling them out on all their lies. Doorbraak also told us a story they had heard from a group in Berlin who they had invited to the Netherlands the previous year. The Berlin group has spoken with people at the job centre asking them to grade and review the advisors, so as to turn the tables for a change, and find out who the most hated advisor was. When they had a clear winner, the group visited the advisor and presented them with an award for being the most hated, complete with music and glitter. It turned out they got the wrong advisor but it’s still a good video.
As well as contacts with the anti-workfare group in Berlin, Doorbraak also has links with a Paris group. Boycott Workfare has also made trips to Austria and Oldenburg, Germany and so together we are developing a loose network of groups across Europe against workfare. In both of the talks we gave in the Netherlands there was interest in strengthening these links and discussing co-ordinating European wide actions together.
Our short trip helped us to think about and understand workfare beyond the UK; we saw how similarly brutal and devastating welfare cuts and workfare schemes are being imposed across Europe. By learning from each others experiences and sharing ideas and tactics, building networks and solidarity, we can begin to challenge workfare on this scale.