Unions fear eastern European workers may be exploited

The number of posted workers in the Netherlands, especially Bulgarians and Romanians, increased by 35% in 2011. Secondment agencies have taken advantage of the fact that services can be offered throughout the EU, after the Social Affairs minister made it difficult for people to obtain work permits. The Dutch Trade Union Federation is worried these workers, mainly employed in construction, agriculture, horticulture, cleaning, and the steel industry, could be exploited.


In 2011, almost 13,360 foreigners registered with the body implementing employee insurance schemes (UWV), up from 9,756 in 2010. More than 60% of these workers originate from Bulgaria or Romania. Without a valid work permit, people from these countries may only work as self-employed individuals or be seconded. However, despite the economic downturn and slump in the construction industry, the number of posted Romanians and Bulgarians rose by 35% in 2011. At the beginning of 2012, a 16% increase in the number of self-employed Romanians and Bulgarians was registered. Many, however, do not appear in official statistics and it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 Bulgarians and Romanians are employed in undeclared work (NL1111019I). In mid-2010, the Minister of Social Affairs, Henk Kamp, tried to discourage less well-educated Romanians and Bulgarians from working in the Netherlands by announcing that it would become more difficult for them to obtain work permits, although 7,640 work permits were still granted in 2010. Those critical of the minister's measures predicted that these people would find another way to work in the Netherlands, and were proved correct as the increasing number of posted workers shows.

Posting of workers worsens employment position

Researchers from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam have already exposed the poor working conditions among a group of 200 Romanians and Bulgarians. A study revealed that posted workers have no information about their residence or work status, and no documentation about their rights or obligations. They seldom know their employer and their jobs hang in the balance from one day to the next. Their position in the job market is also weakened by their status.

Legal and illegal secondment

The European Court ruled at the end of 2011 that the Labour Inspectorate of the Ministry of Social Affairs is allowed to disinguish between situations where an employee is working directly for an employer or is being seconded through a posted worker agency, and that it can impose heavy fines (€ 300,000) in cases of illegal service provision. However, it is currently impossible to clearly define the difference between legal and illegal service provision. For example, the Labour Inspectorate does require companies to submit details of posted workers but inspections do not take place in advance to determine if the secondment is in fact legal. As a result, the companies themselves are not able to establish what is – and is not – permitted. The Government should clarify in advance what the boundaries are between legal and illegal service provision.

Employment contracts offer the most clarity

The Dutch Trade Union Federation (FNV) is concerned about the rights of workers from Eastern Europe. According to the FNV, an increase of 2,284 seconded Romanians and Bulgarians is significant. The Allied Unions (FNV Bondgenoten), which expect the number to rise even further in spring 2012, are opposed to attempts to make work permits harder to get. They say the situation will be better controlled if employers work only with staff who have permits. This would make it possible to monitor the companies involved, and to ensure the employees have a proper contract.

Workers from Eastern Europe mainly find employment in the construction and steel industries, although they also work in sectors such as agriculture, horticulture, and cleaning. Illegal employment practices in the horticultural sector feature regularly in the Dutch news. Crops are bought up by eastern European employers, eastern European workers are paid eastern European wages to process them, but the harvested crops are then sold for Dutch prices. A large number of posted workers can also be found in the construction industry. Union representatives often picket large-scale building projects to tell foreign colleagues of their rights. Here, too, agencies get workers working for Eastern European wages even though Dutch collective labour agreements apply.

Marianne Grunell, University of Amsterdam

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