Migrant Labour in Dutch Agriculture: Regulated Precarity

In: European Journal of Migration and Law
Karin Astrid Siegmann Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS) The Hague The Netherlands

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Julia Quaedvlieg PhD candidate, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS) The Hague The Netherlands

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Tyler Williams Research Assistant, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS) The Hague The Netherlands

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The Covid-19 pandemic has placed the contradictions that characterize the conditions of migrant workers in Dutch horticulture in the spotlight. Central and Eastern European (CEE) workers’ low labour and living standards contrast with the sector’s high productivity. This article disentangles these contradictions by analysing their legal, economic, and social causes through the lens of the power resources approach. Countering discourses that depict rights abuses as exceptional and relate them to rogue employers, the article shows that migrant precarity has been legalised in the context of the highly flexibilised Dutch labour market. Workers’ location at the bottom of an agri-food chain dominated by retailers and their dependency on employers weakens their economic position. Trade unions’ lack of effective outreach to CEE migrants has not helped to counter this disempowerment. Engaging with these sources of migrant farmworkers’ disempowerment also helps us to identify entry points for change sketched in the article’s conclusion.

1 Introduction1

The high productivity of Dutch agriculture goes hand in hand with high risks for migrant farmworkers’ employment and income. With a six per cent share of Gross Domestic Product, the agri-food industry has remained a significant sector in the Netherlands. While dairy and meat have a dominant role in agricultural output, labour-intensive cultivation of flowers and vegetables is crucial for price competitive exports that have made the small country the world’s second largest agricultural exporter. In contrast to dairy and meat production, horticulture has hardly been touched by the EU direct support payments to producers which enabled farmers to invest in labour-saving technologies. As a result, horticulture has remained the most labour-intensive part of Dutch agriculture.2

Migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)3 form the bulk of the labour force in agriculture, a sector that the Netherlands Labour Authority (NLA) considers one of the top risk sectors for unfair work. Reporting on “The state of fair work”, the NLA signalled that a growing number of people are threatened by the risk of underpayment, excessively long working hours, and exploitation, with employment agencies and horticulture as the most affected sectors, and migrant workers from CEE countries being prominent among the victims.4 Such practices are commonly related to legal loopholes, used by rogue employers to lower labour costs.5

The Covid-19 pandemic briefly placed these migrants’ precarity in the spotlight. Migrant workers who could not keep their distance at work, stayed in miserable and crowded housing during the corona crisis, or ended up on the street because, alongside their job, they often also lost their housing and health insurance and thus faced an additional risk of corona infection. These images were highlighted in the media and acted as a catalyst for the establishment of the Migrant Worker Protection Taskforce by the Dutch government in May 2020.6

Focusing on Dutch horticulture, this article disentangles the contradiction between productivity and migrant workers’ precarity. In contrast to dominant policy discourses that focus on the role of violations of labour regulation and exceptional rogue employers, our analysis brings to the fore that migrant farmworkers experience ‘regulated precarity’, i.e., insecurities that are both sanctioned and shaped by prevailing regulation. Enriching a review of relevant academic literature, reports, policy texts and other documentation with qualitative interviews and discussions during a policy panel, we use the lens of the power resources approach presented in the section that follows to identify key factors that shape migrant workers’ precarious conditions.

2 Conceptualising Migrant Workers’ Power Resources

The power resources approach focuses on the resources available to workers to assert their interests within a given economic and societal context. While the influence of social movement studies on the emergence of the power resources approach can be gauged from a similar emphasis on access to collective resources and their use in joint action,7 Bieler locates the approach amidst the increasing importance granted to agency within the wider, especially autonomist Marxist, political economy literature.8 Wright, who is widely seen as laying the foundations of the approach, understands power as “the capacity of individuals and organizations to realize class interests”.9 This capacity is understood as inherently relational, given that workers’ interests are often claimed in opposition to the interests of other actors.10 Brookes therefore argues in favour of an approach that matches workers’ power with those of antagonistic actors,11 something that Hui’s engagement with employer and State responses to worker organising exemplifies.12

Commonly, five forms of workers’ power resources are distinguished. Associational power results from the formation of workers’ organisations that facilitate collective action, such as trade unions, parties, or community organizations.13 Associational power “[…] might be considered as a precondition for magnifying the impact of the other power resources or, in some instances, a necessary condition for even exercising those power types in the first place”.14 Structural power depends on workers’ location within the economic system, at the workplace as well as in the wider labour market, and “rests on the power to […] interrupt or restrict the valorisation of capital”.15

Coalitional power relates to workers’ capacity to influence employers’ behaviour by involving allies. It starts from workers’ social connections by virtue of the multi-faceted identities they hold, beyond being workers.16 Schmalz et al. caution that workers’ alliances can only work if there are bridge-builders between workers and the other social actors whom they seek to mobilise for their goals.17 Discursive power represents a second form of societal support for workers’ demands. It involves building a narrative that politicises feelings of unjust treatment and is exercised through intervention in public debates to cultivate a positional advantage.18

Institutional power lies in workers’ ability to influence the behaviour of other actors by invoking formal or informal rules.19 Whereas Brookes underlines that institutional power is a capacity that “workers have by virtue of their direct relationship with employers”,20 Siegmann et al. show that workers can also leverage other rules, such as entitlements based on contract law, to their advantage.21 Such regulation has repercussions on structural power, for instance, in the case of immigration policy which may offer opportunities or impose limits on the labour market, that way influencing workers’ bargaining power.22 Commonly, these rules are inscribed in national or sub-national political and economic institutions. Yet, they can also be derived from interactions at the international level.

While scholars have used the lens of the power resources approach for a closer analysis of workers’ strength and struggles in sectors as diverse as, e.g., the electronics,23 garment,24 and sportswear industries,25 public26 as well as urban informal services,27 its application to labour relations in agriculture has been rare.28

In contrast to early conceptualisations of workers’ power resources that foregrounded the role of associational power as key to unlocking other resources, recent empirical analyses of migrant workers in agriculture in the global North highlight the role of disempowering institutional factors. While migrant farmworkers did organise successfully to protest against inhumane working and living conditions, like migrants from South Asia and the Balkans harvesting strawberries in Greece,29 restrictive immigration governance has been identified as a crucial factor disciplining migrant farmworkers.

Even regular immigration status may not translate into the guarantee of labour rights. Gemi, for instance, describes how the EU’s introduction of the visa-free regime for Albanian migrants increases the labour pool of seasonal workers in Greek agriculture without providing other employment rights.30 This semi-irregular status restrains agricultural wages, in turn keeping horticultural production costs low.31 Corrado et al. characterize the resulting precarious conditions of migrant labour as one of the strategies employed by European farmers in resisting the retailer-driven transformation of agri-food chains.32

This intersection of institutional and structural power is found on both sides of the Atlantic. In Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), ‘grower power’ vis-à-vis migrant workers from Mexico and the Caribbean is strengthened because SAWP workers can work only for the employer to whom they have been assigned. The weak and contradictory role of liaison officials from workers’ country of origin does not counter this economic dependency.33 Analysing the situation of sub-Saharan African migrant farmworkers in southern Italy, Melossi34 understands a similar dependency on Italian employers as the state renounces “[…] its own decision-making power regarding the assignment and allocation of residence and citizenship rights, leaving it up to the employers to define the migrants’ status and rights”.35 Based on analysis of Romanian migrant workers in Germany’s agri-food sector, Cosma et al. explain the intersection of workers’ institutional and economic disempowerment as a consequence of Big Food lobby power as well as of employers being aware of the long-term hollowing out of the bureaucratic infrastructure that enforces labour rules and the lack of legal support for workers who had to face employers for breach of contracts.36

Several authors describe how restrictive migration governance in southern Europe is braided with discursive constructions of migrants as racial others to make workers deportable and hence weaken their power.37 For women, gender norms that associate the main responsibility for childcare with femininity contribute to their disciplining. This becomes manifest in Spanish employers’ preference for hiring migrant women with family responsibilities to guarantee their return to their places of origin when their contract expires.38

Yet, power resources have also been mobilised for migrant farmworkers’ resistance. For instance, migrants employed in the strawberry harvest in Greece claimed legal entitlements to decent working and living conditions, leading to a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights which held that the workers had not received effective protection from the Greek State.39 This victory needs to be read in the context of the migrant farmworker organizing and uprising that preceded it in which the support that they attracted from coalitions of political parties, solidarity groups, anti-precarity and anti-racist movements was an enabling factor.40 In southern Italy, coalitional power was mobilised in cross-class alliances of migrant workers and small farmers for setting up alternative food networks independent from the mainstream retailer-driven agri-food chains.41

While the power resources approach has not been without critique,42 we agree with Brookes43 that the approach’s combined utility for investigating causality and informing action enables a strategic analysis of current and future spaces for intervention. In section 4, we use it as a lens to identify mechanisms that disempower CEE migrant farmworkers in the Netherlands.

3 Migrant Precarity in Dutch Horticulture

Migrant labour has long been a structural component of the Dutch agricultural sector. While undocumented migrants, largely from Morocco and Turkey, represented an important pillar of the Netherlands’ greenhouse economy during the 1980s and 1990s,44 since the EU expansions in 2004 and 2007, regular CEE migrants – particularly Poles, Romanians, and Bulgarians – have taken their role. Over the same period, the share of migrant workers45 both in direct and indirect agency employment in agriculture has risen sharply (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Migrant workers as share of the workforce in Dutch agriculture, 2006–2019 (%)

Citation: European Journal of Migration and Law 24, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15718166-12340127

For seasonal agricultural work, Dutch policies offer a ‘single permit’ combining a work visa and residence permit for which an employer or candidate can apply. In practice, however, the Netherlands hardly receives […] non-EU seasonal workers as administrative hurdles and associated costs combined with the continued availability of CEE labour currently make this process a less attractive option for growers.46

Employment agencies and the agricultural sector are identified as the top employers of CEE migrants, with estimations of about 275,000 and 49,000 jobs respectively.47 According to official statistics, Polish farmworkers form one third of the agricultural labour force.48 Recently, the countries of origin of migrant agricultural labour supply have shifted further east, e.g., to Balkan countries, Ukraine, and Southeast Asia.49

Holding EU citizenship rights does not prevent a high degree of precarity among CEE migrant workers. Precarious work is characterized by a range of labour-related insecurities.50 First and foremost, for most CEE farmworkers, such insecurities include a high degree of employment and income insecurity due to pervasive zero-hour employment contracts with employment agencies. These contracts stipulate payment only for the number of hours worked and allow for dismissal should no work be available or the worker call in sick.51 Over and above the resulting lack of guarantees of a regular and sufficient income, wage discrimination, withheld wages and overtime payments as well as unlawful fees or fines are often used to discipline the workforce.52 As a result, about one fifth of CEE migrant workers work at or below the minimum wage, earning an average of ten euros per hour, half of other European workers’ wage.53 The physically demanding work comes with health hazards or work insecurity (e.g., exposure to chemicals in greenhouses), while workers are threatened with dismissal when they demand sick leave.54 With possibilities for training being rare, skill reproduction insecurity is high, too. A Polish greenhouse worker summarises the underlying logic as follows: “[W]hy would [growers] actively try to shift cheap labor away from the production process and into higher-skilled, higher paid jobs?”.55 Last but not least, low trade union membership among migrant workers in agriculture56 that also reflects unions’ ‘othering’ of migrant workers57 implies that CEE migrant workers lack a collective voice in the labour market and, hence, representational security.

In the section that follows, we use the lens of the power resources approach to trace the various mechanisms that disempower migrant workers, thus producing their precarity.

4 Mechanisms Disempowering Migrant Farmworkers

4.1 Profiting from Workers’ Dependency58

Reflecting the findings summarised in section 2, migrant workers’ high degree of dependency on their employers has been highlighted as the main mechanism that structurally disempowers them in the Netherlands.59 Growers usually hire farmworkers through employment agencies that offer interlinked employment, accommodation, transportation, and medical insurance contracts.60 Based on her interaction with Romanian migrants, a policy advisor for international cooperation in the Dutch province of Brabant points out that migrants themselves embrace this interlinkage: “Many people ask questions like: ‘I am looking for work here, but I also want a house and insurance’. People want both together. Many of these people have come here only because of this dependence”.61

The downside of such attractive ‘package deals’ is that the single-dependency constructions leave migrant workers in an extremely vulnerable position. Given the insecure contracts that workers commonly hold, there is a constant risk of dismissal that not only implies income insecurity, but also the risk of homelessness. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these insecurities. In early phases of the pandemic, CEE migrants who lost their jobs due to the lockdown-related slump in demand for agricultural products could not return to their home countries because of travel restrictions to Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, resulting in an increased number of homeless migrants. In general, the fear of dismissal curbs complaints about common abuses, such as unpaid vacation allowance or overtime payments, and more severely, dismissal threats when workers demand, for example, sick leave. A social worker supporting migrant workers summarises this as follows: “If you open your mouth, you get the boot and you are on the street. Because the two go hand in hand”.62

Such disempowerment at the workplace is embedded in migrant workers’ low structural power in the wider agri-food chain. In the hourglass-shaped agri-food chain in the Netherlands, a highly concentrated group of retailers wields significant power both over a large number of farmers and millions of consumers.63 The five largest supermarkets in the Netherlands – Albert Heijn, Jumbo, Lidl, Plus and Aldi – hold a combined market share of 79 per cent.64 Supermarkets’ power is compounded by the role of International Buying Groups in which several retailers participate. They “coordinate procurement across borders to obtain the lowest possible prices for well-known brands and/or basic private label groceries”.65 A representative of the Dutch labour inspectorate NLA exemplifies the resulting pressure on prices: “Consumers pay 1 euro for one package of mushrooms. For that to be possible, the cost price needs to remain low. The grower says: how will I be able to meet those low prices? Here, workers are seen as cost only”.66 Growers’ response to retailers’ downward pressure on prices is to pass it on to migrant workers in the form of low wages and insecure contracts.

4.2 Institutional Disempowerment through Flexibilisation

While public and media discourses commonly frame migrant farmworkers’ poor labour conditions as exceptional, to be combatted with improved regulation,67 our interview participants highlight its structural character. For instance, most complaints about severe violations of labour rights that FairWork, an organization fighting labour exploitation in the Netherlands, receives from the agricultural sector do not involve exploitation as narrowly defined in the Dutch criminal law but stem from migrants who are mostly employed according to the rules stipulated in labour legislation.68 A FairWork representative therefore argues that

[l]egally there is little you can say about this, but socially there are big issues. […] the legal framework in itself, especially the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] for employment agencies, is problematic and allows for violations.69

The resulting insecurities that migrant workers experience can best be described as ‘regulated precarity’. With this we refer to work-related insecurities that are not only sanctioned, but even shaped by prevailing regulation that disempowers workers. Below, we show how both national labour legislation, the tax system as well as EU regulation become power resources for migrant workers’ counterparts in different nodes of the agri-food chain.

4.2.1 Dutch Regulation Tilted against Migrant Workers

At the national level, the flexibilization of labour law has shifted institutional power to employers. As a result, while temporary staffing is not even legal in some other countries, such as Turkey and Mexico, the Netherlands ranks among the EU countries with the lowest regulatory strictness.70 According to the 1999 Flexibility and Security Act, a workers’ contract with an employment agency is a regular employment contract except for the first 26 weeks. Trade unions supported the law71 – exemplifying that it is problematic to assume

[…] that any strategy of unions and parties where stated aims are achieved can be declared a successful exercise of workers’ power – no matter what the effects are of this strategy on workers as a class.72

Employers are allowed to deviate from the legal rules through the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Until 2015, this legalised wage discrimination between directly employed and agency workers, as agency CBAs enabled the payment of lower wages even for the same tasks.73 To date, the two CBAs that govern such agency contracts distinguish different phases. During the first phase, workers are only paid for the hours worked and the contract may be terminated at any time. Subsequently, they gradually build up social rights, for example regarding notice periods, paid holidays, and pension rights. Workers in the last phase must be offered a permanent contract and receive payment even if there is no work for them.74 After logistics, horticulture tops the list of sectors with flexible employment relations in the Netherlands.75

Phasing of labour rights is problematic as, in practice, most migrant workers in agriculture remain stuck in the first phase even after years of employment in Dutch agriculture. Employment agencies achieve this legally, for instance, through dismissal before the conclusion of the first contractual phase. The experience of a Polish worker exemplifies this: “In 2007, we started working for another employment agency, but still for the same [grower]”.76 By changing the employment agency, the chain of contracts was broken, enabling the new employer to offer a first phase contract to him. Breaks in between seasonal employment with the same agency offer an alternative way to keep workers in first phase contracts. These practices are beneficial for both the agencies, which receive higher recruitment fees based on repeated contracts, and for growers, who save on wages and fringe benefits. This way, the legal framework that, in theory, aims “[…] to provide both the flexibility that some workers seek and that most employers want, and the employment and income security desired by workers”,77 in practice, turns collective agreements into instruments of flexibilisation:78 Continued employment with a first phase contract implies a constant risk of dismissal and high income insecurity.

Besides labour legislation, tax law offers agencies further opportunities to turn the ‘package deal’ of the combined offer of employment and accommodation into a profitable business model. Dutch tax legislation enables the deduction of expenses for migrant workers’ housing and health insurance up to a maximum of 25 per cent of the minimum wage.79 This deduction of so-called extraterritorial costs from workers’ pre-tax earnings reduces the agency’s labour costs,80 even if housing expenses are not inflated, as often the case.81

The monitoring and enforcement of fair labour practices is also complicated by indirect contracts. A representative of FairWork gives the example of two migrant workers who were employed in an employment agency for two months only. They were recruited by a grower for the packaging of tomatoes but did not receive their salary. FairWork’s complaint about this wage theft set in motion a time-consuming ping-pong between the employment agency and the hiring grower about the workers’ entitlement and who was in charge of the payment. After a couple of months, an agreement was reached that involved a payment below the workers’ actual dues. The workers had accepted this unfavourable settlement because they grew tired of the long and complicated procedure.82

In addition to the complex accountability involved in agency contracts, the NLA’s weak capacity to monitor and enforce labour standards exacerbates workers’ institutional disempowerment. Currently, only an estimated one per cent of all companies where unfair labour practices form a potential risk are being monitored by the labour inspectorate annually due to a decrease in funding and the resulting limited capacity.83 Similar to Cosma et al.’s observations in Germany,84 Covid-19 aggravated this situation as, in initial stages of the pandemic, the Dutch inspectorate did not perform inspections out of fear for infection of their staff.85 This may have severe consequences for workers. A union representative gives the example of a group of seasonal Polish workers who reported burns suffered while handling chemical substances during their work to the authority. The NLA reacted after three months when the affected workers had already returned to Poland.86

Widespread language barriers compound migrant workers’ difficulties to realise their rights. FairWork representative Helena Kosec points out that especially less educated migrants have difficulties both understanding the contracts they sign and navigating Dutch institutions that might support them in case of abuses:

Filling in report forms on the website of the [labour] inspectorate: that’s too much for many people. They can’t get through the telephone menu, which is in Dutch, by the way. They cannot find the way on the website to that one form, hidden somewhere, that is in Romanian or Polish. If they have to fill in the form, they often don’t know all the details of the employer, and if they don’t know that one piece of information, they can’t continue and complete the report.87

Here, Kosec points to the double whammy of contract law sanctioning detrimental employment relations when migrant workers put their signature under skewed contract terms and the disempowerment that results from the lack of sufficient knowledge and skills to realise their existing rights within the Dutch system.88 In addition, under Covid-19, language barriers also increased migrant workers’ risk of Covid-19 infection because health and safety policies and instructions were often not provided in their native languages.89 These barriers also mean migrant workers are often unaware of grievance procedures to claim their rights or unable to use them. For instance, private conversations between labour inspectors and workers are essential but do not seem to take place regularly, especially due to widespread language barriers.90 Besides, migrant workers often refrain from using existing grievance procedures because they are cumbersome and costly.91

Focusing on support for employers in the Dutch agri-food sector, institutional responses to the Covid-19 pandemic often ignored or even accentuated migrant farmworkers’ precarity. Despite the sudden awareness that migrant workers were essential for the functioning of the national agri-food sector, the Dutch government directed support to growers without prevention measures that would protect their workers. The support that growers received for job retention included the wages of employees with flexible contracts, yet, still a large number of CEE migrant workers lost their jobs or experienced wage cuts.92 At the local level, some municipalities fined employers for violations of Covid-19 prevention measures. In Westland, a global hub of greenhouse horticulture, though, the municipality announced that, in order to guarantee food security, controlling the transportation conditions for workers offered by employment agencies was not a priority.93 Despite a significant number of infected employees, the country’s largest meat processing plant in Boxtel was kept open on the basis of an agreement with the municipal health service, justified by the need to avoid bottlenecks in meat supply.94

4.2.2 EU Regulation Facilitating Flexible and Cheap Labour

EU enlargement has been flanked by measures that, in fact, facilitate the erosion of labour rights guarantees. While by default, “pay and conditions of employment of cross-border workers falls under the jurisdiction of the country of employment”,95 EU regulation such as the Posting of Workers Directive (1996/71/EC), the Services Directive (2006/123/EC) and the Social Security Regulation (883/2004) allow for subversion of this principle.96

The posting of workers enables employers to reduce labour costs as well as bureaucracy.97 The Posting of Workers Directive makes it possible to post workers from a company in one EU member state to a company in another member state.98 In the Netherlands, labour intermediation through posting emerged at the beginning of the millennium in response to labour market entry restrictions for citizens of new CEE EU member-states. It implies that Dutch employment agencies transfer their core activity to a local office, e.g., in Poland, which in turn posts labourers to Dutch client firms. This way, posted workers can be paid lower Polish wages.99 Additionally, both taxation and social security leverage can remain under the auspices of Polish institutions.100 The steep rise of one-person employment agencies in Poland suggests that CEE countries are being used as conduits for employment contracts, offering employers opportunities to circumvent CBAs, thus lowering wages and social security costs.101

Migrant workers’ low structural power in the wider agri-food chain outlined in section 4.1 has also been shaped by other actors’ entitlements higher up in that chain. Dutch retailers’ participation in International Buying Groups exacerbates the financial power they wield in regard to negotiating lower prices from food producers/distributors as they can introduce competition not just domestically but internationally. It enables them to unilaterally impose practices that “grossly deviate from good commercial conduct, good faith and fair dealing”,102 such as retroactive delisting of suppliers unless they offer price discounts. While pushing for economies of scale in agriculture, IBGs themselves can escape taxation through cross-border schemes.103 The downward price pressure ensures growers employ all available methods to survive, including a dependence on low wages and insecure contracts for migrant workers.104 These detrimental effects of retail concentration on workers are de facto permitted under EU competition law105 “[a]s long as consumers benefit from the lower resulting prices”.106

4.3 Lack of Social Support to Realise Existing Rights

While the regulation of the Dutch labour market and the wider agri-food chain is tilted towards employers, growers and other actors in the agri-food chain, the lack of networks of support implies that migrant workers often cannot realise existing rights and entitlements. Ania Paszak, representative of a CEE migrant organisation, laments that neither the labour inspectorate nor the trade union movement in the Netherlands are sufficiently accessible for migrant workers:

Where do you go with these kinds of complaints? […] You have the labour inspectorate, but well. You have the unions, but you can only approach them if you are a member. They can do something if it concerns large groups. Same with the labour inspectorate. Individual complaints are not actually processed. Only when people really get together.107

Employers’ strategies further weaken migrant workers’ associational power. For instance, the dominant reliance on agency workers in horticulture absolves growers from the legal requirement to establish works councils. A Polish horticultural worker shares:

I know that a works council can be established in a company if it has 25 permanent employees. But the permanent employees at our company are 12 maybe 13. Yet, in summer, there are 200–250 people [working] there.108

Trade union consultant Mariola Michno adds the example of a works council in a mushroom company that she considered in the grower’s pocket rather than a representative body:

[…] he came back and said that they had set up a works council. I said, oh that sounds good. So, were there elections? Did they do everything the way it was supposed to be done? No, they appointed a few people to the works council and there were no elections. So, that’s how it works.109

Potential allies are commonly silent on labour conditions in agriculture. While groups lobbying for sustainable food systems, too, see migrant farmworkers as victims of an unfair food system, their demands skip direct improvements in their working conditions in favour of setting up small-scale farms as an alternative:

We have created a global food production system driven by profit, in which people and nature are ‘consumed’ for the sake of corporate profits and the wealth of a few. […] We are moving towards new thinking based on agroecology and food sovereignty. In the Netherlands, more and more innovative farmers are working this way. […] If we take this as a guideline in Europe, then the many labour migrants can build up something in their own country and continue to live with their family and friends.110

5 Conclusion

Based on the data presented above, we argue that migrant precarity in Dutch horticulture is a structural component of the prevailing agri-food system rather than an exceptional aberration. This contrasts with official discourses.

Our analysis, in fact, reflects migrant labour’s systematic subordination in the contemporary agri-food system. This structural rather than exceptional subordination suggests that the dominance of the horticultural sector among criminal court cases of severe exploitation111 represents just the tip of the iceberg of migrant farmworkers’ precarity. Here, drawing parallels to analyses of the discourses on ‘modern slavery’ is illuminating. For instance, Kenway argues that by characterising severe exploitation as exceptional and making it into its own category, the modern slavery frame hides how economic structures and immigration policies produce harm, that way providing moral legitimacy for the very policies that enable such harm in the first place.112 While the notion of exploitation that Kenway refers to here is narrower than the notion of precarity that we apply, her point that policy and legal discourses and interventions produce rather than prevent the violation of labour rights is relevant for precarious migrant farmworkers in the Netherlands, too.

By investigating workers’ power resources in relation to those of antagonistic actors, we identify economic mechanisms that produce precarity among CEE migrant farmworkers in the Netherlands, and foreground that these are flanked by legal entitlements that empower employment agencies, growers and retailers at the national and EU level.

Structurally, their high degree of dependency on their employers and the skewed power relations in the agri-food chain disempowers migrant workers in Dutch horticulture. The fact that the ‘package deals’ of employment, accommodation, and health insurance that agencies typically offer are both the cause of migrant workers’ dependency and attractive to a foreign workforce, complicates their wholesale dismissal.

Considering parallels with unfree labour helps to evaluate such ambiguities. Analyses of labour relations in post-colonial societies, for instance, understand unfree labour as part and parcel of capitalist production, conceptualise it as a part of a continuum of labour relations from fully unfree to decent working conditions, and do not preclude subjective benefits to unfree labourers.113 Closer to home, an unfree labour system aimed to discipline and coerce workers into highly exploitative labour relations has been described for Italian agriculture.114 Strauss argues that unfree agricultural labour in the UK – and beyond – is instrumental for accumulation in the agri-food chain and for keeping the wider population’s costs of social reproduction low.115 These findings remind us that understanding the history of the contemporary agri-food system in Europe involves an engagement with its roots in colonialism and slavery, and its continued reliance on racialisation and on unfree labour.116

In our analysis, zooming out beyond the horticultural farm makes visible that migrant workers’ dependencies and their resulting unfreedom helps farmers cope with retailers’ downward pressure on prices.

We show that labour market regulation and the tax system sanction and shape migrant workers’ position as weakest link in the Dutch agri-food industry. The Netherlands comes to the fore as a country in which business strategies premised on high labour market flexibility and cost-driven competition lowers workers’ institutional power.117 This is not exceptional. Earlier studies have highlighted that states create conditions for unfree labour through policies that limit labour mobility, deregulate the labour market and empower employers.118 In the Italian case, regulation shifts power resources to employers by tying together residence permit and employment contract. In the Netherlands, we show that the staggering of agency workers’ social and economic rights as well as the legal interlinkage of employment and accommodation contracts disempowers workers.

Further, our analysis confirms that workers’ weak associational power complicates their exercise of other forms of power.119 Insufficient trade union outreach to CEE migrant workers means that many of them remain uninformed about their contractual and legal entitlements and available grievance mechanisms. In addition, we show that the causality between power resources rooted in workers’ organisations and other types of levers goes both ways: Because of the regularised precarity of phased agency contracts, other forms of a collective voice in the labour market such as works councils are inaccessible to the flexible agency workforce. Migrant organisations partly compensate this weak associational power through legal advice and social support.

To address migrant farmworkers’ ‘regulated precarity’ and strengthen their institutional power, a legal and institutional environment is required that effectively guarantees living wages and inclusive social protection for the essential migrant workforce in Dutch fields. For the government, a key step from the current situation towards decent migrant work in Dutch agriculture would be to redress the possibility to stagger agency workers’ economic and social rights. This would be in line with the recent advice of the Committee on the Regulation of Work that agency workers should receive the same entitlements as employed workers directly by the enterprise in which the worker is actually working120 as well as the 2008/104 EU Temporary Agency Work Directive that stipulates the equal treatment of agency workers and directly employed workers as regards working and employment conditions.

The reintroduction of a public licensing system for employment would complement the previous step. This goes further than the mandatory certification system proposed by the Migrant Worker Protection Taskforce. While the Taskforce assumes that this will be an effective measure to exclude rogue employment agencies from the market,121 earlier studies have shown that agencies with a certificate breach labour law almost as often as non-certificated ones.122 Licencing, in contrast, enables the government to specify and guarantee minimum requirements before employment agencies can operate. Such a licensing system existed in the Netherlands until 1998 and is currently in use in other EU member states.

The implementation of labour rights guarantees can be bolstered through more rigorous enforcement of labour inspection. The recent increase in resources made available to the labour inspectorate for the monitoring of labour exploitation is a step in the right direction. More importantly, though, the inspectorate’s approach could be significantly improved through a reorientation towards workers as its most important stakeholders. This implies, for instance, a grievance mechanism that is easily accessible in workers’ native languages and outside working hours, private conversations with workers during unplanned inspections and swift responses effectively addressing complaints. This is in line with the Netherlands Court of Audit’s advice to the NLA “to improve the position of victims in the administrative law approach and to offer more possibilities for assistance and protection for victims in the administrative law approach”.123 Here, the Fair Food Program in US agriculture can serve as an effective example inspiring a worker-centred grievance, monitoring and sanctioning mechanism.124

The strengthening of migrant farmworkers’ associational power through new forms of awareness-raising and organising is a crucial steppingstone to counter unfair labour practices. The current lack of trade union inclusiveness for CEE migrant workers in Dutch horticulture can be explained by a combination of their low union density combined with the trade union movement’s weak working-class orientation.125 Given this distance from Dutch trade unions, trusted migrant organisations, too, have an important role to play for the formation of migrant workers’ collectives. In the context of Dutch trade unions’ traditional focus on “tripartite bargaining in order to develop collective and social rights and institutional regulation”,126 the emerging new forms of outreach to migrant workers through fellow CEE citizens are promising. Rather than organising outreach activities for migrant workers by sector, FNV started organising regional events on, e.g., occupational safety and health in the Southern provinces of Brabant and Limburg where open field horticulture is concentrated. Interested workers are trained as shop stewards to enable them to inform their colleagues about their rights and entitlements in their own languages.127 Such organising through ‘cultural mediators’ has proven to be an effective way to take workers’ social identities – beyond class – on board in union outreach and illustrates the importance of the role of bridge-builders between workers and the other social actors whom workers seek to mobilise for their goals.

While these proposed changes harbour potential for short- and mid-term improvements, they do not yet challenge the neoliberal European market model with its focus on facilitating companies’ profit seeking and labour cost reduction.128 Here, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis also offers an opportunity to rethink the role of labour in our agri-food system. With the breakdown of agricultural supply chains and bottlenecks in the supply of agricultural labour, Covid-19 has underlined the essential character of the agri-food system – and the workers who shoulder it. Institutional innovation to guarantee fair prices for producers, e.g., through the regulation of ‘living price’ benchmarks and living wages for farmworkers would represent key building blocks for humanising the agri-food chain in the Netherlands.


This article draws on various outputs of the project “Exploitation in Northern European Agriculture” funded by the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI) and led by the European University Institute’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. These outputs include Siegmann, K.A. and Williams, T. (2020). Migrant labour in Dutch agriculture: regulated precarity, in: Are Agri-food Workers only Exploited in Southern Europe? Case studies on migrant labour in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. L. Palumbo and A. Corrado (Eds.), pp. 13–21, Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI), Brussels, Belgium; Siegmann, K.A. and Quaedvlieg, J. (2020). Covid-19, agri-food systems, and migrant labour: the situation in the Netherlands, in: Covid-19, Agri-Food Systems, and Migrant Labour: The situation in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. L. Palumbo and A. Corrado (Eds.), pp. 12–14, OSEPI, Brussels, Belgium; and Siegmann, K.A., Quaedvlieg, J. and Williams, T. (2020). Policy Brief: From Regulated Precarity to Decent Work. Improving Conditions for Migrant Workers in Dutch Agriculture. ISS, The Hague, the Netherlands.


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2015). Innovation, Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability in the Netherlands, OECD Publishing, Paris, France, pp. 127, 218.


In the context of this article, CEE and related terms commonly refer to Poland, Bulgaria and Romania as the predominant countries of origin of migrant farmworkers in the Netherlands, but also include other EU countries such as Hungary, Lithuania or Latvia.


NLA (2017). Staat van Eerlijk Werk: Loon Naar Werken? Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, The Hague, the Netherlands, pp. 3, 9; Netherlands Labour Authority (NLA) (2019). Staat van Eerlijk Werk 2019: risico’s aan de onderkant van de arbeidsmarkt. Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, The Hague, the Netherlands.


E.g. Aanjaagteam Bescherming Arbeidsmigranten (2020). Geen Tweederangsburgers. Aanbevelingen om misstanden bij arbeidsmigranten in Nederland tegen te gaan. Aanjaagteam Bescherming Arbeidsmigranten, The Hague, the Netherlands, p. 14; NLA (2021). Rapport arbeidsmigranten. NLA, The Hague, the Netherlands; NLA (2019: 4).


Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, (2020). Brief van de Minister van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid 4 mei 2020, The Hague, the Netherlands.


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Bieler, A., 2018. Agency and the power resources approach: asserting the importance of the structuring conditions of the capitalist social relations of production. Global Labour Journal 9(2), pp. 243–248.


Wright, E.O., 2000. Working-class power, capitalist-class interests, and class compromise. American Journal of Sociology 105(4), pp. 957–1002.


Brookes, M., 2018. Power resources in theory and practice: where to go from here. Global Labour Journal 9(2), p. 254; Wright (2000: 962).


Brookes (2018, pp. 254–255).


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Brookes (2018, p. 256).


Schmalz et al. (2018, p. 116).


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Schmalz et al. (2018, p. 123).


Schmalz et al. (2018, pp. 122–123).


Brookes (2013, p. 188); Schmalz et al. (2018, p. 121).


Brookes (2013, p. 191).


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Schmalz et al. (2018, p. 117).


Hui (2021).


Anner (2013).


Siegmann et al. (2016).


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Fischer-Daly, M., 2022. Structuring workers’ bargaining power in Mexico’s strawberry fields. Global Labour Journal 13(1), pp. 41–60 and Selwyn, B., 2011. The political economy of class compromise: trade unions, capital – labour relations and development in North East Brazil. Antipode 43(4), pp. 1305–1329 are two exceptions.


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Papadopoulos et al. (2018: 204).


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Melossi (2021, p. 495).


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Melossi (2021, p. 494); Corrado et al. (2017, p. 13).


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Papadopoulos et al. (2018, p. 204).


Papadopoulos et al. (2018, p. 206).


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E.g. Gallas, A., 2018. Class power and union capacities: a research note on the power resources approach. Global Labour Journal 9(3), pp. 348–352.


Brookes (2018, p. 254).


Benseddik, A. and Bijl, M. (2004). Onzichtbaar Achter Glas: onderzoek naar de bijdrage van illegalen in de glastuinbouw van het Westland. Stek/OKIA, The Hague, the Netherlands.


This share includes both EU and non-EU workers.


De Lange, T., Oomes, N., Gons, N. and V. Spanikova (2019). Labour Migration and Labour Market Integration of Migrants in the Netherlands: Barriers and Opportunities. SEO Amsterdam Economics, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, p. 7.


Heyma, A., Bisschop, P. and Biesenbeek, C. (2018). De Economische Waarde van Arbeidsmigranten uit Midden- en Oost-Europa voor Nederland. SEO Economisch Onderzoek, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. As detailed in section 4.2, agencies also recruit for the agricultural sector.


Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) (2019). Employees from Abroad; Resident/Non- resident, Demographic Variables. CBS, The Hague, the Netherlands. Available at: [accessed 31 March 2022].


NLA (2019, p. 5).


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NLA (2019, p. 26).


McGauran, K., de Haan, E., Scheele, F., and Winsemius, F. (2016). Profiting from Dependency: working conditions of Polish migrant workers in the Netherlands. FairWork and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), Amsterdam, the Netherlands, pp. 25–26.


NLA (2019, p. 21).


NLA (2021, p. 52); NLA (2019, p. 36), McGauran et al. (2016, pp. 23, 28, 30).


Williams, T. (2019). Flowery Language. The Promises of New Technology and Impacts on Polish Labor in Dutch Horticulture. MA thesis. ISS, The Hague, the Netherlands, p. 29.


Connolly, H., Marino, S., and M. Martínez Lucio, 2014. Trade union renewal and the challenges of representation: strategies towards migrant and ethnic minority workers in the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. European Journal of Industrial Relations 20(I), pp. 5–20.


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The title is inspired by McGauran et al. (2016).


Aanjaagteam Bescherming Arbeidsmigranten (2020); McGauran et al. (2016), NLA (2021, pp. 21–25).


McGauran et al. (2016, p. 30).


Input A. Totti, Policy Advisor International Cooperation, Province of North Brabant during policy panel ‘Gereguleerde Wantoestanden: Arbeidsmigranten in de Nederlandse Landbouw’, The Hague, 8 October 2020.


Interview H. Soe-Agnie, Stichting Hulp en Opvang Prostitutie en Mensenhandel (SHOP), The Hague, 20 November 2019.


Ten Kate, G. and van der Wal, S. (2017). Eyes on the Price: international supermarket buying groups in Europe. SOMO Paper. SOMO, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, pp. 1–2.


Distrifood (2022). Marktaandelen. Available at: [accessed 31 March 2022].


Ten Kate and van der Wal (2017, p. 2).


Interview A. Zebel, NLA, The Hague, 20 November 2019.


E.g., Aanjaagteam Bescherming Arbeidsmigranten (2020, p. 15).


In the context of this article, the term exploitation refers to legal definitions as enshrined in Dutch and international law. Article 273f of the Dutch Criminal Code understands labour exploitation as the goal of human trafficking, with the Netherlands Supreme Court (2019) recently identifying systematic substantial underpayment and provision of poor, far too expensive housing as indicators of such exploitation (Siegmann, K.A., 2021. How anti-trafficking governance is getting it wrong: consequences of the differential treatment of migrant worker groups in the Netherlands. blISS – The ISS Blog on Global Development and Social Justice 23 September 2021. Available at: [accessed 31 March 2022]).


Interview H. Kosec, FairWork, Amsterdam, 12 November 2019.


Pijpers, R., 2010. International employment agencies and migrant flexiwork in an enlarged European Union. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36(7), p. 1090.


Keune, M., 2013. Trade union responses to precarious work in seven European countries. International Journal of Labour Research 5(1), pp. 70–71.


Gallas (2018, p. 349).


Van der Valk, P. (2016). Cao onder Druk? Onderzoek naar Ontwikkelingen van Collectieve Arbeidsverhoudingen in Relatie tot de CAO. De Burcht, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, p. 65.


McGauran et al. (2016, pp. 51–2); Van Liemt, G. (2013). Private Employment Agencies in Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. SECTOR Working Paper No. 290. International Labour Office, Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 12–13.


ABU and NBBU (2021). Arbeidsmigranten in Nederland: de cijfers. ABU and NBBU, Lijnden and Amersfoort, the Netherlands.


Interview shop steward, FNV, Weert, 26 November 2019.


van Liemt (2013, p. 11).


Keune (2013, p. 71).


Aanjaagteam Bescherming Arbeidsmigranten (2020, p. 13); van der Valk (2016, pp. 66–67).


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Interview M. Michno, FNV, Weert, 26 November 2019. See also McGauran et al. (2016, pp. 25–26).


Interview Kosec (2019).


Interview M. Buiks-Bota, FNV, 12 June 2018; see also Bleijerveld, R. (2019). Is de Aanpak van Uitbuiting in de Tuinbouw Effectief? Available at: [accessed 31 March 2022]; NLA (2018). Meerjarenplan 2019–2022. Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, The Hague, the Netherlands, p. 35.


Cosma et al. (2020, p. 15).


De Lange, T., Mantu, S. and Minderhoud, P. (2020). Into the unknown: COVID-19 and the global mobility of migrant workers. American Journal of International Law Unbound 114, p. 336.


Interview Michno (2019).


Interview Kosec (2019).


Cosma et al. (2020, p. 12) describe similar situations that Romanian migrants face in the German agri-food sector.


Berntsen, L. and Skowronek, N. (2021). State-of-the-art Research Overview of the Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in the EU and the Netherlands. Nijmegen Sociology of Law Working Papers Series 2021/01. Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, p. 19.


Interview Michno (2019).


Interview Kosec (2019).


Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond (CNV) (2020). CNV Onderzoek Uitzendkrachten. CNV, Utrecht, the Netherlands.


De Zeeuw – Heus, R. 2020. Controleren migrantenvervoer geen prioriteit politie vanwege voedselvoorziening. Algemeen Dagblad (AD) 30 March 2020. Available at: [accessed 31 March 2022].


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McGauran et al. (2016, p. 44).


McGauran et al. (2016, p. 12).


Cremers, J. (2015). Social Security and Free Movement in the EU European Coordination – Legal loopholes – Welfare tourism? INT-AR Paper 2. Tilburg University, Tilburg, the Netherlands, p. 3; Pijpers (2010, p. 1087).


Van der Valk (2016, p. 65).


To enforce the principle of equal pay for equal work in the same location and to prohibit deductions from the wages of posted workers for travel, boarding, and lodging, the 2018 amendment changed the Posting Workers Directive’s understanding of wages to remuneration. This now includes overtime rates, allowances for working at night, on Sundays or on public holidays, holiday remunerations as well as bonuses (De Lange et al. 2020, p. 334).


Pijpers (2010, p. 1087).


McGauran et al. (2016, pp. 42–3).


Ten Kate and Van der Wal (2017, p. 2).


Interview R. Bleijerveld, Supermacht, The Hague, 20 December 2019. For a detailed case study of a cross-border scheme used by the largest Dutch retailer Ahold Delhaize, see Kiezebrink, V. and McGauran, K. (2017). Verborgen belastingpraktijken van Nederlandse bedrijven. Een onderzoek naar grondslaguitholling en winstverschuiving. SOMO, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


Franck, A. and Nemes, I. (2018). Dutch Supermarket Supply Chains: ending the human suffering behind our food. Oxfam Novib, The Hague, the Netherlands.


Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, see e.g. Colen, L., Bouamra-Mechemache, Z., Daskalova, V. and Nes, K. (2020). Retail alliances in the agricultural and food supply chain. European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.


Ten Kate and Van der Wal (2017, p. 12).


Interview A. Paszak, IDHEM, The Hague, 10 January 2020.


Interview shop steward, FNV, Weert, 26 November 2019.


Interview Michno (2019).


Input H. van Geel, Toekomstboeren / La Via Campesina during policy panel ‘Gereguleerde Wantoestanden: Arbeidsmigranten in de Nederlandse Landbouw’, The Hague, 8 October 2020.


NLA (2017, p. 9).


Kenway, E. (2021). The Truth about Modern Slavery. Pluto Press, London, United Kingdom, pp. 9–10.


E.g., Guérin, I., 2013. Bonded labour, agrarian changes and capitalism: emerging patterns in south India. Journal of Agrarian Change 13(3), pp. 405–423; McGrath, S., 2013. Many chains to break: the multi‐dimensional concept of slave labour in Brazil. Antipode 45(4), pp. 1005–1028.


E.g., Pradella, L. and Cillo, R., 2021. Bordering the surplus population across the Mediterranean: imperialism and unfree labour in Libya and the Italian countryside. Geoforum 126, p. 485.


Strauss, K., 2013. Unfree again: social reproduction, flexible labour markets and the resurgence of gang labour in the UK. Antipode 45(1), pp. 180–197.


Rogaly, B., 2021. Commentary: agricultural racial capitalism and rural migrant workers. Journal of Rural Studies 88, pp. 527–528.


Brookes (2013, p. 188).


Pradella and Cillo (2021, p. 484).


Brookes (2018, p. 256).


Commissie Regulering Werk (2020). In wat voor Land Willen wij Werken? Naar een Nieuw Ontwerp van de Regulering van Werk. Eindrapport. Commissie Regulering Werk, The Hague, the Netherlands, p. 67.


Aanjaagteam Bescherming Arbeidsmigranten (2020, p. 5).


McGauran et al. (2016, p. 57).


Algemene Rekenkamer (2021). Daders Vrijuit, Slachtoffers niet Geholpen. Algemene Rekenkamer, The Hague, the Netherlands, p. 6.


Siegmann et al. (2016).


Based on the conceptualisation by Benassi, C. and Vlandas, T., 2016. Union inclusiveness and temporary agency workers: the role of power resources and union ideology. European Journal of Industrial Relations 22(1), pp. 5–22.


Connolly et al. (2014, p. 16).


Input N. Cremers, FNV Agrarisch Groen during policy panel ‘Gereguleerde Wantoestanden: Arbeidsmigranten in de Nederlandse Landbouw’, The Hague, 8 October 2020.


Interview Bleijerveld (2019).

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