First successes in struggle against against forced labour in the Netherlands

It has already been over two years since Doorbraak started an experiment in Leiden of using ‘organizing’ elements in the battle against the government cuts. We have reported back a few times, and this time we can report the first actual results!

Examples of these ' organizing' elements are conducting dialogues, indepth evaluation of all activities, and targeted efforts at building a position of power.
After the first year we have, on the basis of our experiences and political assessments, decided to focus more specifically on the actions against the unemployed. Especially the ongoing introduction of forced labour offered a good opportunity to build resistance and effectively intervene in social developments. This approach has already yielded more positive results than we had expected. So what have we achieved so far?

1. As a result of our campaign the municipality has not succeeded in making forced labour ‘normal’.

The council and most political parties have from the start wagered that forced labour would become ‘normal’, and that the idea of “having to work for your social security benefits” would also become ‘normal’. That is why they did not want to give it too much attention: it was supposed to be just another one of many reforms that are constantly implemented. But Doorbraak has succeeded in breaking through this so-called ‘normality’ and has shown that a number of our fundamental rights are being breached, such as the right to a minimum wage, an employment contract, free choice of labour, and proper working conditions. In Leiden we currently see that policy makers and politicians experience that they are being pressured into justifying forced labour – to the extent that it is not the activists but the authorities who regularly have to provide explanations.

And we have seen that once broken through, this desired ‘normality’ is not easily restored. Once or twice every week we have been going to the square in front of the forced labour centre, to talk to unemployed people during lunch break. This generates quite some tension in the centre because this is seen as “protesting”, according to what we have been told by various people. That is why the management immediately sends out two or three guards, usually also unemployed who are forced to work. This is how easy “protesting” can be: no banners or flyers needed, just sitting on a bench and having a chat is sufficient in such a situation. It is enough to cause commotion among the security personnel of the centre.

2. As a result of our activities the progressive parties and unions feel obliged to also ‘do something’.

It is the duty of progressive parties and unions to keep track of what is happening at the bottom of society, to detect dissatisfaction and anger, and make this visible, to formulate it in terms of public policies, and to organize or at least channel it towards the parliamentary institutions. In Leiden the unions, the Socialist Party (SP), the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Green Party (GroenLinks) have witnessed that Doorbraak stirs up the existing dissatisfaction and is able to engage a considerable amount of people, possibly more than the unions or the progressive parties themselves could engage locally at this moment. As a result they too are all of a sudden becoming active, even though they never took any action in the past regarding the predecessor of the forced labour centre, the so-called Work Atelier where forced labour existed as well. Contrary to what is customary in the council the forced labour centre has already been the topic of discussion twice. This was partly at the request of the Socialists and the Labour Party, who on account of the Doorbraak dossier on forced labour started their own investigations into the practices of the centre. The Green Party and three of the unions have also announced their intentions to start investigating.

3. As a result of our activities the management has liberalised the regime in the forced labour centre.

After the successful May 1st protest in front of the entrance of the centre, followed by the publication of our dossier, we quickly received the first signals of a substantial change in the daily routine. Forced labourers told us that the regime had been somewhat liberalised. Suddenly they were allowed to get a coffee, and they experienced more respect from the guards in the workplace. It also became apparent that all of a sudden not all unemployed who were called up were also put to forced labour. Internal sources confirmed the change in course, and admitted that this was a direct result of the Doorbraak activities.

4. As a result of the campaign, individual unemployed Doorbraak activists have gained more power versus their “client managers” and are not put to forced labour.

Doorbraak is of course fighting for the complete abolition of forced labour for everyone, but in the meantime the campaign has already benefitted some of our own protesters. It seems that campaigning openly has given them some sort of power: “client managers” appear to be reluctant to treat the more prominent protesters harshly. One of our Doorbraak group was treated in a humiliating way during an interview with a social service employee and she wrote a column on our website about it. Immediately and without her request she was allocated another official who was all sweet and sugary and told her she did not have to do forced labour. She was obliged, however, to come in for a few hours every week to apply for jobs. Then she would be put in a room by herself, separated from other unemployed applying for a job – probably to prevent infecting them with activism.

A second Doorbraak activist was asked during his intake interview with an official of the centre: “you’re not going to publish what we discuss here, are you, with my picture and all that”. He clearly was referring to the picture of Emiel Gommans, the senior guard in the workplace. We used his picture in the ball throwing games during our May 1st protest, and then put it on our website. By the way, it seems Gommans is after Doorbraak’s blood since then or so we have been told. This second Doorbraak activist also does not have to do forced labour. This is good news because it means he will have more time for the campaign, although he is obliged to come and apply for jobs four hours per week. This is quite convenient because it means he can come to the centre regularly to talk to the forced labourers who do not go outside during their lunch break. We had difficulties reaching these people ever since Doorbraak was banned from entering the centre by the manager after our successful May 1st protest.

5. The critical employees at the forced labour centre feel supported by our actions and now and then pass on information to us.

Many of the civil servants have started working at the centre in the past because they wanted to help the unemployed with statutory sheltered employment (WSW regulation). This was a long time before forced labour for the unemployed was put in place. These are progressive people, who want to see forced labour abolished as soon as possible, and who now feel strengthened by the public criticism of Doorbraak. At least four of them have told us directly or indirectly that they are on our side. At least one of them has referred a critical unemployed to us, and others pass on internal information to us. We cannot say more because we must not endanger their position. But it is clear that many employees are struggling with moral dilemmas. One of the employees whom some of us know from past support work for refugees, was passing us the other day at the square in front of the entrance where we stood talking. With an embarrassed smile she told us: “Yes, I am working for the enemy now”.

6. In general, forced labourers quickly put their confidence in Doorbraak.

Doorbraak activists almost always establish open and strong relations with the forced labourers in and outside of the centre. Our open attitude and critical ideas appeal to them right from the start. This makes Doorbraak the only organisation in Leiden with information about the true daily reality in the centre, from the experiences at grassroots level. Of course the municipality inspects this but invariably reports that there are no problems. Political parties receive only a few individual complaints. This means we have a huge advantage when considering options for resistance.

7. Through our campaign we succeeded in forcing at least one of the commissioning companies to retreat.

Doorbraak published the names of companies that profit from forced labour by unemployed people in Leiden. Internal sources report that at least one of these companies has retreated from the scheme due to the negative publicity. In our publications and on our website we have given special attention to the firm Sensabeads and it would not surprise us if this would be the company in question. One of the employees of the forced labour centre accused Doorbraak of endangering the employment of WSW workers: “Your actions will lead to firing of WSW workers”. However, it is the municipality that transfers more and more work from WSW workers to forced labourers, because the latter work for free and are on average more productive. Exactly because of this replacement the WSW workers lose their jobs.

8. The euphemism framework of the municipality is gradually being replaced by our clear and honest terminology.

Doorbraak consistently uses terminology such as “forced labour” and “workplace guard”, to indicate how we view the reality. We did not invent these concepts but usually picked them up when talking to the working unemployed themselves. Already by using this terminology the veiled wordings of the municipality become less credible. In the meantime our terminology is being used quite broadly. That is, from the bottom-up, because of course you will never hear these terms in the municipality or among policy makers and implementers in the centre, even though by now all those big shots know the wording.

9. Afraid of more commotion, the municipality has abandoned its plan of targets for punitive benefit cuts.

Just before the forced labour centre was opened, a plan was circulating among the municipal policy makers to significantly increase the number of punitive cuts for receivers of benefits by setting specific targets. The municipality would save half a million euros per year by cutting the expected 500 forced labourers by on average one month’s full benefits, or for example by having their montly benefits cut by fifty percent twice. This gave rise to a heated discussion between civil servants in favour and against the quota for punitive cuts. “It would be like giving the police force in Leiden the pre-set target of charging everyone in a certain neighbourhood with some kind of offence,” said one of the critics. “But fortunately Doorbraak came with their protest against forced labour, and the plan was abandoned”, according to one of our sources. Civil servants were afraid that all of this would be leaked to the press, and having the Doorbraak activists right on their tail made them decide the plan was simply too big a risk to take. So in fact without being aware of it at that time, our actions supported dissident civil servants to torpedo this monstrous plan.

10. We have been successful without involving the commercial media.

Through our campaign we try to be less focussed this time on ‘raising awareness among the general public’, working instead on engaging people and building up real power. We are in contact with the people who are important for us, not via the media but instead through daily talks in the street, in the office, in the canteen, at meetings and demonstrations. We have had discussions with dozens of people from Leiden, including of course the progressive politicians and union activists. We do not use the media to communicate with our opponents. Instead we make our objectives clear to them by simply disrupting their daily oppresive practices. An example of this is making it harder for the employees to maintain discipline in the centre. It has proved to be possible to disrupt the normal state of affairs and achieve concrete successes with a very targeted campaign.

In fact, very little about our campaign has been picked up by local or national commercial media. We did not want to see our own left vision being watered down by a journalist of Rightwing Telegraaf-subsidiary Leidsch Dagblad, for example. That is why we have sent our own articles directly to all relevant politicians, policy makers, employees and fellow-activists at all times. Obviously, most of the big shots would normally never read our material, but now all of a sudden they are very interested as a result of the direct conflict of power. Sometimes it may have been just curiosity: “What are they saying now? Who are they attacking this time? Let’s hope I am kept out of it!” The big shots turned out to be very aware of our publications every time.

Inspiring others

We think this is quite an impressive list. We do realise that the lack of a robustly organised radical Left in the Netherlands means that this type of success stands out easily no matter how small it is. It is obvious that we have not yet reached our real targets. We may have succeeded in building up an extensive network, but it has been almost impossible to engage people on a structural basis. This of course is difficult in a place where most of the people execute forced labour for only a few weeks or months. But we are working on keeping our contacts with the forced labourers also after that period. Our final goal of this campaign is still out of reach: abolition of forced labour in Leiden. Naturally we do not expect reaching it already in the coming years.

Our experiment is not just intended to enable us to develop new campaigning methods, but also to inspire all those other radical lefties. We hope that our reports show that it is possible even in – or: exactly because of – these right-wing times: bringing people together, having influence and achieving modest successes. We hope it will spread to other cities. Would you like to know more about our approach in the past two years? At the Doorbraak website you will find a list of no less than 31 articles (in Dutch) that together show what we have done and said within the framework of our battle experiment.