A detailed account of two "direct action casework" campaigns around unpaid wages in the Raffle's Grand Café and Phuket Thai restaurants in Amsterdam.
The Anarchist Group Amsterdam (Anarchistische Groep Amsterdam/AGA) was formed in response to one specific labour conflict at the end of 2000 and beginning of 2001. The conflict was the result of a short and precarious working experience by one of our comrades earlier in 2000. Because AGA has developed into a proper anarchist group over the past years, we have been involved in many social issues besides labour conflicts. What follows is an account of the first labour struggles that we were involved in, including a more recent one. The article will finish with some reflections on our practices. But to have a better understanding of the conflicts a few words need to be said about the Amsterdam hotel and catering industry and the social and political context within which AGA is acting.
Characteristics of the Amsterdam hotel and catering industry
The jobs in the industry are very diverse. There's the more 'front office' jobs like those of the waiters, which are mostly performed by white people, then there's the kitchen and cleaning work done mostly by workers of foreign descent. Through a combination of not giving contracts or giving only temporary contracts and bad working conditions, there's a high turn-over of workers. This is something the employers are counting on since the work is partly seasonal (in the summertime Amsterdam has many more tourists than in the wintertime). Another thing is that workers have to be officially registered after the first month of work. If the turn-over is very high, this means a lot of workers don't have to be registered or the risk in not registering them is low. This saves paying social taxes.
Social and political context
AGA is part of the squatting and wider 'radical left' movement of Amsterdam. Therefore there are always people who are interested in the group's activities and are willing to support the group in some of them. So when we carry out actions we mobilise amongst these people. With the conflicts described below we worked together with groups which are somehow related to this movement. None of them are aligned to any political parties or other parliamentary organisations. It must be said that for instance the research collective on casualised labour, Searchweb, has been able to have a few of their people doing subsidised jobs for the collective. This is due to particular choices of the Social-Democratic government in the nineties, which wanted to lower unemployment. Therefore activist groups whose members had formerly been living on the dole, were being paid from another government pocket. AGA has always stayed far from these practices. We strongly believe that our group should be independent of any government funding. This doesn't mean that we're not working together on certain issues with grassroots groups/organisations who have slightly different views and practices. When a group is as small as AGA, having this sort of surroundings of sympathetic people and a circle of friendly groups provides an extra mobilising base for actions and activities.
Raffle's Grand Café
Our comrade, Leon1
, had been working thirteen days as a dishwasher in Raffle's Grand Café in January and February 2000. The café's only shareholder and director was Hugo Alberto Fernandez, who also owned two other restaurants called Alberto's. All three of them are situated in the most touristic parts of Amsterdam's city centre. After working without a contract for a week, Leon was offered a contract with a gross salary of 9.35 euros per hour. 2
It was common practice to work without a contract for a while to prove suitabilty for the job. Workmates told him they often had to wait for their wages until three months after the month they had worked. Workers without papers were exploited more fiercely. One of them was working seven days a week for a wage of 5.45 euros per hour. Leon decided not to sign the contract and quit the job after thirteen days on the job. 3
These were days of an average of 7.5 hours. This meant he should get a total gross salary of 911.63. Because he knew it was quite normal to wait for one's wages for a long time, he decided to be patient. How naive can even an anarchist be! A period of travelling across Europe for several months followed. He finally settled back in Amsterdam in late September and tried to organise some friends and anarchist comrades through the Vrije Bond,4
because he had still received no money whatsoever.
A first visit
At first he and a Dutch speaking comrade visited the administration of the café. The office clerks couldn't find any information about him. Two of them were talking to each other saying that obviously he hadn't worked for the restaurant legally. 5 Eventually they found 53 of the hours he had been working there in the working schedules. This still wasn't the complete 97.5 hours he actually had been working. But L. and the comrade went home after the clerks had told them they would talk to Alberto and phone L. later. When they phoned him the same day, they told him to come and get the money. At arrival he was paid 4.55 euros per hour for 53 hours. These 240.62 euros were paid cash, accompanied by a simple receipt. Although he accepted the money at first, he didn't feel quite satisfied and decided to go on to get all of the money. Which was 671.01 gross salary.
From this moment it was decided to take further action with AGA. The first step was to go to the restaurant with a small group to demand the rest of his money. During this visit he was told the old owner had gone broke and had sold the business to a new one. A third account had been opened and a judicial institute was now taking care of back payments. According to the Chamber of Commerce there was no new owner though, so we decided to pay another visit. We made clear that 4.54 euros per hour is illegal, because it's under the legal minimum wage of people over 23 years of age. The person we were talking to could only respond by saying they had paid 6.01 euros per hour for only 40 hours, while another woman from the office of the café still said he had received 4.54 for washing the dishes. Then the person said Leon could call him to explain the situation and then get the money. When he called, he was told they would pay him 6.01 euros per hour for 53 hours, so not for the 97.5 hours he had been working.
It was then decided within AGA's assembly not to accept the money and to take on a form of direct action. A leaflet explaining the conflict and calling for a boycott of the three restaurants of H.A. Fernandez was made. Three leafletting actions followed. The first time we entered the cafe with about 10 people handing out the leaflets, one of us explaining aloud what the situation in the café was like and telling people they could leave the place without paying. This was April first 2001. The second time the restaurant was the final stop of our 150 people strong First of May demo. Some of us managed to get in for a few seconds before the cops kicked us out and formed a line between us and the café. The third time was on June 30. At first it appeared to turn out just the way the first two had done: an unfriendly verbal confrontation with the manager. This was the second manager we had to deal with-the first one had left in April, after our first visit. We would like to think we were the extra 'stress factor' that made him leave. Eventually the talk got a little friendlier and the manager 'promised' he would talk to Alberto. We could call him later to make an appointment.
It appeared to be quite hard to get to speak to the manager by telephone. In one of the calls a worker said that the manager would be there on a certain day from five o'clock. So Leon and another member of AGA went to see the manager that day. The manager was present and willing to talk both of them. Again he made a 'promise', saying he would talk to Alberto and look in the books for any administration relating the case. When Leon called him a few days later, he was told that they would pay him 90.90 euros. He could call back later to let them know whether or not he would accept the money.
This was discussed in our assembly. We all decided not to accept this hush money and to send a registered letter with a short history and the exact amount of money we demanded from Raffle's Grand Café. A few days after sending this letter, Leon called the manager. He told him that he had seen the letter, but that he could not do anything other than offer the 90.90. The most remarkable thing he revealed was that he would leave Raffle's in two days. So the pressure must have been on...
Even though it seemed we had gotten rid of two managers within the six months, the conflict continued and there was very little chance of us getting the rest of the money. As can be seen by the long periods of time between leafletting actions, the AGA and Leon became more and more reluctant to continue this conflict. We had been jerked about for too long. Instead of dealing with the owner directly, we had been dealing with some office clerks and two different managers, who themselves apparently found the working conditions in the restaurant intolerable because they didn't stay longer than a few months. An attempt was made to organise one more 'proletarian eating' action as compensation for the money that was still owed by Alberto Fernandez, but this failed miserably in its organising stage. After that we decided to call it a day and accept the fact that we had only received part of the money. 6
During the following years we dealt with two similar cases which ended successfully. In these cases it was enough to just pay one visit: we explained that we were the worker's union, that we were coming one last time to see if matters could be resolved in a friendly fashion and that otherwise we would start direct action and legal proceedings. In October 2005 we were approached by twenty-five year old Achmed,8 born in Burma and raised in Bangladesh, who was living in the Netherlands without papers. We got to know him through Searchweb, a research collective in Amsterdam investigating precarious labour since the 80s. The collective have always supported AGA in its activities, offering us office space and joining in some of our actions in the hotel and catering industry.
During six months Achmed had been working for a number of restaurants managed by Rashid. A major part of this period he worked six to seven days per week, from noon to two or three in the morning. Achmed's wages changed from the initial 25 euro per day to 30 euro as he became a skilled cook and finally to 1,000 euro per month. These wages were far below what a worker is formally entitled to and they were apparently still too high in the eyes of the employer, who stopped paying. As a result, A. missed out on 1,200 euro.
Rashid accused Achmed of stealing 20.000 euros in cash money from his house. This was a blatant lie. We set out to get ourselves informed. We organised assemblies with AGA, a person from Searchweb, Achmed himself of course and a group called Flexmens. 9
We discussed the case, made a file with the history of the conflict so far. Achmed was very clear he was willing to take direct action. We set a date for a first visit to Rashid in his restaurant and gathered information about his business interests through the Chamber of Commerce. As Achmed was still supported by Amsterdam's Support Collective for Refugees (ASKV), we were also in touch with them. One of them visited a lawyer with Achmed. The lawyer seemed willing to take up this case. If succesful a civil suit would have cost Rashid loads of money; therefore this would be an effective means to put pressure on him.
On 17 November we confronted the owner with about fifteen people. He appeared frightened, and came up with an incoherent story. Contradicting himself every couple of sentences, he first said he did not know Achmed, then he said he had given him shelter and Achmed had only been in the restaurant to have dinner. Finally he admitted Achmed had been working in the restuarant and said everything had been paid already. Smilingly we told him, that if this was the case we would like to see the pay checks. Obviously this was impossible, so he threatened to call the police. He started pushing the buttons of his cell phone and said something in Bengali. A man came over from another restaurant. "That was something of a surprise, for I recognised this man. I had been giving him advice for quite some time when he was having a conflict with this very same restaurant owner. Apparently, this conflict had been resolved". 10
The visit had been quite tense, but served as a clear sign we were putting the pressure on. As expected we left empty-handed. We went back to our meeting point and evaluated the action for a bit. It was decided some of us were going to meet several former employees, the upstairs neighbour of the restaurant and a former business partner of Rashid who all had troubles with him. They could provide us with information about Rashid's behavior towards Achmed. We wanted to know more about his background, his way of working. But we also needed testimonies that Achmed had been working for Rashid. Under Dutch law, if someone had a verbal contract and the boss denies this, one needs six witnesses' written testimonies to the effect that one has been working for this boss. The idea was to wait for a bit while doing this and then send a letter from AGA and a letter from the lawyer posing a deadline for the payment. The first Saturday after this deadline we would visit the restaurant around six or seven in the evening with a group of people and a banner and flyers. This was not necessary, for Rashids brother phoned Achmed about a week later. He could get 500 euro, and the remaining 700 euro a few weeks later. When Achmed picked up the money the first time, one of us joined him and a group of three persons was waiting just around the corner. Earlier on, before Achmed got in touch with us, he had been attacked one night when arriving in the brother's restaurant to ask for the money and we were not going to stand for any more of that. So if anyone was going to doing some beating, it would be us. Luckily the brother paid the 500 euro without any problems and two weeks later the rest of the money was collected. It is worth noting that a friend of Achmed was still working for Rashid's brother. He had overheard the brother saying on the phone to Rashid's wife: "Why doesn't he just pay the money and get rid of the nuisance?" Through another person we heard that Rashid had apparently told people he had been visited by a group of "Dutch terrorists".
Although we can never be a 100% sure that a court case would have been successful, Rashid got away with it cheaply. We would have been able to get the six testimonies and with these it was quite likely we'd have won. Then Rashid would have had to pay the legal minimum to Achmed, which would have been almost twice the amount he did pay. But as legal proceedings could have had an influence on Achmed's stay in the Netherlands, he preferred cutting a deal.
General remarks about organising workplace resistance
In the six years since the inception of the Anarchist Group Amsterdam we have been involved solely in small workplace conflicts in the local hotel and catering industry. Besides actually intervening in four conflicts, the group was contacted in two other instances to get involved as well. In these two cases the workers contacting us abandoned the possibility of action due to reasons that remain unclear to us. This shows that fighting back in the workplace is not the most common thing to do. This is especially true for people who are in the difficult situation of needing to work in the margins of the labour market, meaning doing the highly flexible and casualised jobs, which are very often unregulated, so called 'black' jobs. In these cases they find it often more favorable to go look for another job as soon as possible in order to secure a minimum income to survive. Besides they often fear repression by the boss.
So far the methods we used could be seen as an 'exit strategy'. In all the cases the worker had been fired already or had left. So for us the only thing we could do is to make it as expensive as possible for an employer to 'fire' a worker. The last part of this article deals with how we organise and the methods we use. In reading it a few things should be taken into account.
First of all, all conflicts the AGA was directly involved in were in the Amsterdam hotel and catering industry. Secondly, it always concerned one worker, so it was always individual conflicts being dealt with. And thirdly, in all cases the workers had already quit the job.
The first and most important thing is the complete dedication of all people involved. This does not necessarily mean everybody has to concentrate her/his whole life on this case. It means being realistic about how much can be done, making clear agreements on it and living up to them.
The central person is the injured worker - or group of workers, but the AGA only dealt with individual conflicts. To prevent a situation where the whole support group is taking the case out of the worker's hands and starts to function as most unions with specialists, it should be the injured worker who is the one deciding what should be done, when and why. The rest of the support group is there to give options of what can be done, help to organize and voice their opinion, but it should never take over the case. On the other hand a group should be very careful not to become the sheep of the injured worker.
Take the worker(s) legal position into account from this stage onward. In particular workers without papers can suffer serious consequences from taking action againt a boss. So it is important to discuss how to avoid interference by immigration or other investigative authorities. Many times there will still be people without papers working in a place and a raid by the foreign police, for example, will result in detention and very likely deportation.
And finally, be aware of how far you want to go and don't let the conflict drag on too long, it's better to accept a defeat when it's there instead of trying to ignore it and letting the organization get bogged down. This is lethal to morale.
A two-lane road
The AGA always chose to take a two-lane road of legal action and direct action. The main focus should always be on direct action, since legal actions are always taking place within the framework of the bourgeois justice system. But it is a good way to get oneself informed about the rights one has and at what point the demands made to the boss become 'unreasonable'. Then also a lot of bosses are scared to have to go to court, especially in an industry like the hotel and catering industry where a lot of dodgy business is going on. Going to court means the eyes are on one's business and one is risking more of one's illegal activity being discovered. So apart from actually going to court, it's already a good way of exercising pressure on the boss. Show that you know your rights and use the threat of a court case. Direct action was always used to slowly build up tension. Doing it slowly was done for mere practical reasons. First of all, if light actions already get the goods, it prevents too much work being done. Secondly it gives the group time to get more information on the case, whether about legal rights or about the owner's activities. In the Raffle's case, for instance, we were fooled with a supposed bankruptcy of the company and it being taken over by another owner. If they realise you're badly informed their power to bluff grows.
Thirdly if the pressure's on too high in the early start it can result in such a heavy counterreaction that the fight will have to be prolonged over a long period of time. If the group is small that means it's very exhausting and dangerous for morale.
Communication and documentation
A very important point is also documentation, not the nicest aspect, but absolutely necessary. First of all the worker's side of the story should be clearly written down on paper: so information like working period, working hours of different days, when which discussion with the boss took place and other information that is relevant. Then everybody has a clear reference. This prevents a lack of clarity in debates about the case.
The next step is getting additional information. This means finding out how many businesses the boss owns, which ownership structures are used in the different companies, if the boss owns real estate. Finding out what kind of real estate owner he is, how does he react on squatters for instance? In Amsterdam there's a squatting research collective which has information on all if not most owners ever involved in a squatters' conflict. Getting in touch with people who in the past had some kind of relation with the boss, like ex-business partners, workers and so on is also important.
All this extra information makes one able to get a better view of how the boss might react to the support group's activities. Reports should be made of all visits to people. Other information should also be written down or copied. This way over time a serious file will come into being. This is useful, because the more you know the more you can forget and the bigger the group the more different the stories become over time. If there are irregular intervals between the meeting of the support group or if a group of people that help out occasionally exists around the support group, but is not actively involved in the organising, it can be useful to send a regular 'update' to the people who in some way or another are involved in the conflict.
Building up tension
After getting the first information on paper, action can be planned. Here we'll describe a way of working that was quite successful for us. Together with the injured worker we'd pick a date for a first 'friendly' visit. The friendliness of this visit largely depends on how much the conflict has escalated already. This is different each time and has to be decided anew each time as well. The first visit is used to let the owner know about the new situation. He is not only dealing anymore with one individual worker, but with a group, a union. This visit can best be characterized by the words impressive, but open and friendly. You want to make sure the owner knows you're serious about it.
After such a visit, you can wait for a first reaction of the owner. This reaction could be given directly to the group or the worker. But it can happen that you get to know his ideas about your appearance in the workplace through other workers. Use the time you wait for this - which can differ from a few days to let's say a maximum of two weeks - to gain more information and prepare a possible legal case.
A next step could be one more visit, which is less friendly. Or you can decide to write a letter to the owner, stating your opinion for the final time. You can explain what the problem is according to you and say you give the owner one final possibility to solve the problem in a friendly manner, without giving public notice to the case. It's good to set a deadline then. This letter is always a good moment to show up with a lawyer. So if you can have a lawyer send a letter as well, then the pressure will be rising. Awaiting reply to this situation, preparations should be made for direct action. In the case of restaurants it's always nice to do your first action on a Saturday evening for instance. Make a nice flyer for the customers and passers-by. Explain the story shortly and call for leaving the place without paying or not entering at all. Once the conflict has come to this point it becomes tricky. We only have experience with it in one case, the Raffle's case, which, as you have read already, was not that successful. The owner can become very annoyed and will challenge your determination and your ability to get a small group of people organised to do an action every week or two weeks for instance. In the long run we had serious trouble doing this.
If at any point you realize you're running on empty it might be good to decide to quit and do a final action, which preferably hits the place financially. Something like the proletarian dinner we were planning in the Raffle's case.
Unfortunately we don't have experience yet with these kinds of actions. Hopefully we'll gain this in the next couple of years.
So the fastest way to victory is a good acquaintance with the injured worker and the support group and a maximum of dedication by those involved. A clear approach, so everything can be dealt with without doubts or discussions at the wrong moments. And finally, a careful build-up of tension, properly informing those involved by making a file and sending updates.
- 1This is not his real name.
- 2The amounts are the equivalents of the old ones in Dutch guilders
- 3Until about 2001/2002 it was relatively easy for legal foreign workers, like Leon, to get a job. So even some of the precarious jobs 'gauranteed' reasonably enjoyable working conditions. But no
- 4Vrije Bond (Free Union), was founded at the end of the eighties, early nineties when the anarchists within the only Dutch revolutionary syndiclist union O.V.B. were partially pushed out or left voluntarily. Some of them went on to form the Vrije Bond. The course of revolutionary syndicalism was abandoned after a few years and the union entered a period of silence, with just its solidarity fund and magazine Buiten the Orde (Outside the Order) still functioning. A few years ago AGA joined the Vrije Bond and is currently trying to help revive it.
- 5Imagine the old houses of Amsterdam's city centre. These houses on the sides of the streets very often have another house behind it (back or rear houses). The office was a small smoky room in such a back house connected to the Café. This added to the dodgy atmosphere already around the case.
- 6In 2006 it was reported in several papers that Alberto Fernandez had been threatened by a thug hired by one of Amsterdam's number one real estate owners during the same period when we were bothering him. This man wanted to buy Alberto's restaurants, who owned the property himself. But he wouldn't sell it so the real estate owner had one of his heavies threaten him, unsuccessfully though. Maybe this was part of the reason Alberto wasn't impressed by us: we didn't threaten to kill him or his kids, we just tried to keep custumors out.
- 7An earlier article on this conflict was published by Dirk Kloosterboer in December 2005 under the title Thai restaurant made to pay back wages. It can still be found on: www.nieuwsuitamsterdam.nl/English/2005/05123101.htm
- 8 Not his remain
- 9Flexmens, Flex Human, is a small group of people publishing a quarterly magazine of the same name and which wants to pay attention to the issue of precarity. They are involved in the EuroMayDay network. They had been formed about a year prior to this conflict and AGA had been organising a Precair Forum togehter with them and MayDay actions in 2005.
- 10A person from Searchweb quoted in Thai restaurant made to pay back wages. See 7 as well.