Migrant workers: keeping your distance at work impossible
Migrant workers are confronted with the corona measures during their work in the Netherlands. One in five cannot keep a distance of one and a half meters on the work floor and run an extra risk of contamination. In distribution centers, wholesalers and parcel sorting centers this even applies to half of the employees. This is apparent from a survey by the Social Affairs and Employment Inspectorate (SZW) among 380 labor migrants.
The reason for the Inspectorate’s investigation is the abuses in slaughterhouses, which came to light at the beginning of the corona crisis. In May last year, some meat processors had to close their doors after major corona outbreaks, especially among foreign employees. Safety could no longer be guaranteed. In addition, employees would have been pressured to continue working with symptoms of illness. Corona fires have also arisen among migrant workers in fruit processing.
crammed together in vans
Due to corona, the poor working conditions of labor migrants, an estimated five hundred thousand in the Netherlands, suddenly received full attention. From a tour of NRC in May last year, passing holiday parks, old barracks and residential complexes, it turned out that labor migrants live with many people in small houses and are brought to work crammed together in vans. Many migrant workers also said that their health insurances had not been arranged and that they were dependent on their employment agency for a job and a bed. In the event of job loss, it turned out, many migrant workers were immediately kicked out by their employment agency. Reason for the Inspectorate to investigate compliance with the corona measures among migrant workers.
The most striking conclusion from the study is that keeping a distance in distribution centers is impossible, according to half of the respondents. When packing groceries and sorting orders, people often work side by side on the assembly line and avoid each other in the narrow aisles. This is less the case in agriculture and horticulture, according to the Inspectorate: 12 percent of the respondents in the agricultural sector cannot keep their distance.
There is an additional danger in cold stores and food processing plants: the low temperature. “There is an assumption from the meat industry that aerosols containing virus particles survive longer in a cold environment. These cold conditions occur, among others, at slaughterhouses, manufacturers of cut vegetables, fresh fruit and ready-to-eat meals,” the Inspectorate writes. The coronavirus is likely more viable in cool temperatures.
In the middle of last year, SZW inspectors unannounced visited about 550 migrant workers at home, in flats, in holiday parks and on camping sites. Two-thirds of them cooperated in the investigation, sometimes an interpreter was used. “Some dropped out,” the inspectors write in the report, when it became clear that participation could lead to a visit to the boss by the Inspectorate. One inspector was expelled from the site by an employer.
The researchers point out that the migrants may have provided “socially desirable” answers because of their relationship of dependency with their employer. “The risk of socially desirable answers is therefore probably somewhat higher than average in this exploration.” This may have resulted in “a rosier picture” than the reality.
Under the leadership of former SP leader Emile Roemer, the cabinet appointed the so-called ‘booster team’, which was to make recommendations to prevent corona outbreaks among migrant workers and to propose solutions for the poor working and housing conditions of this group.
Not paid in case of illness
Roemer and the booster team argued in June that migrant workers should be given their own room during the corona crisis, but that hardly appears to be the case among those surveyed: two-thirds share a room. At least 40 percent of the rooms appear to be smaller than ten square meters and 85 percent of the migrants share kitchen and sanitary facilities with others. Half of the respondents also say that they do not continue to be paid in the event of illness or that they do not know that.
Apart from the survey, the Inspectorate SZW has a hotline where work-related contamination risks can be reported. In the period from 2 March to 6 December 2020, this hotline received 1,359 reports about labor migrants and contamination risks. That is more than a fifth of the total number of corona reports received (6,448).
The SZW Inspectorate states that labor migrants should be better registered, so that it is known where they live and work. Their dependence on employment agencies also makes supervision more difficult, writes Inspectorate SZW. Legally speaking, the Inspectorate can only monitor working conditions, while migrant workers also experience problems with their housing, transport and health insurance; matters that are usually arranged by the employment agencies.
During the corona crisis, the Inspectorate warned several companies where migrant workers work about not complying with the corona measures. Two companies had to temporarily stop their activities, hardly any fines were handed out.