Tag Archives migrant labour

Human Trafficking | How anti-trafficking governance is getting it wrong: consequences of the differential treatment of migrant worker groups in the Netherlands

In many countries, including the Netherlands, being an immigrant – or being perceived as one – is a key mechanism used to normalise job precarity and poorly paid work. From this perspective, in theory, the rising attention to exploitative conditions that has paralleled anti-trafficking interventions is promising for migrant workers. Yet, using the case of the Netherlands as an example, this post highlights that, in practice, the exploitation of some workers seems to worry policy-makers more than others. The selective concern for migrant workers’ exploitation has paradoxical consequences, writes Karin Astrid Siegmann.

Holland Fintech

In a recent case of human trafficking of Slovak workers on a Dutch strawberry farm, the Netherlands Supreme Court identified “systematic substantial underpayment and provision of poor, far too expensive housing” as indicators of exploitation. While hardly used in the International Labour Organisation’s labour rights framework, the term ‘exploitation’ is central to the 2000 UN Anti-Trafficking Protocol – shorthand for the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The Protocol does not define exploitation, but outlines forms that it can take, such as the “exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”. By 2021, with 178 ratifications, most countries of the world are party to the Protocol.

Having worked with migrant workers in the Netherlands for a couple of years now, I can’t get my head around how Dutch policy discourses on exploitation differentiate between occupational groups. Take migrant workers employed in the Dutch agricultural sector, like the Slovak migrants mentioned above. Agriculture employs the biggest share of the approximately 370,000 migrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) working in the Netherlands. Significantly contributing to the country’s Euro 49 billion value added produced in the agri-food industry, they make this small country the largest agricultural producer in EU and the second largest agricultural exporter globally.

These successes are lauded publicly, yet the migrant workers contributing to these successes are commonly invisibilised. While court cases countering the exploitation of farm workers are exceptional, their insecurity, poverty, and dependency are the rule. Even the Dutch Labour Inspectorate speaks of a large grey area of unfair labour practices affecting agricultural workers that are de jure legal. Mostly being workers deployed through employment agencies, they have little say about the number of hours they will work or the resulting earnings – and they can easily lose their job from one day to the next. Given that the employment agency often provides them with housing, too, dismissal simultaneously means losing accommodation.

Then there are migrant sex workers. Other than in many other countries, sex work is a legal profession in the Netherlands. A closer look reveals that this might not be much more than a ‘legal façade’: instead of being treated as work like any other, sex work is handled as a security risk, reflected in the fact that the sector is regulated by the Ministry of Justice and Security instead of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Welfare. A small sector anyway, in which an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 sex workers provide direct forms of sex work on a daily basis, the number of licenses for legal workspaces for sex work have halved since 2000. Based on a split image in which the Dutch sex workers are cast as modern, emancipated on the one hand, and migrant sex workers depicted as exploited and trafficked on the other, the sex industry is the only sector in the Netherlands that does not allow non-EU foreigners to work legally in the sector.

Yet despite their small number, migrant sex workers figure prominently in discourses around anti-trafficking governance in the Netherlands. This becomes evident in the proposed law on the regulation of sex work (WRS), which lists the fight against human trafficking as one of the drivers of the law amendment and argues that the sex industry is more prone to trafficking than other sectors. It is ironic here that for many years, the incidence of forced labour in other sectors, such as horticulture, was actually not included in official reports on human trafficking.

Anti-trafficking interventions heighten rather than reduce risk of exploitation

The selective concern for migrant workers’ exploitation has paradoxical consequences. The skewed framing of migrant sex workers’ realities justifies repressive policies that heighten the risk of sex workers’ exploitation. The conflation of sex work with human trafficking that has been exacerbated since the ratification of the Anti-Trafficking Protocol affects all sex workers. It has been used to justify increasingly repressive regulation of this legal profession, for example through the progressive closure of streetwalker zones across the Netherlands and the criminalisation of the clients of unlicensed workers. Undermining the stated objective of such regulation, the focus on human trafficking pushes migrant sex workers further into informality with greater vulnerability as a consequence.

The underpayment, insecurity, and dependence of a much larger group of migrant workers in the agricultural sector, in contrast, commonly remains out of view in media and policy discourses. This supports the normalisation of their ‘regulated precarity’: they pay for economic success of Dutch agriculture. In this way, both the misrepresentation of migrant sex workers and the invisibilisation of migrant farmworkers’ realities heighten the risk of exploitation that they face.

These examples demonstrate that anti-trafficking governance has not been an effective tool to address migrant workers’ exploitation. Both groups are losing instead of gaining what’s sorely needed – job security, better working conditions, and fair treatment. A more promising road towards fair labour practices for migrant workers involves a shift from a criminal law to a labour approach to human trafficking, including migrant sex work, as María Inés Cubides Kovacsics argued in her recent post in this series. This implies a regulatory environment that considers both migrant workers in agriculture and the sex industry citizens rather than passive production factors or victims – and effectively guarantees living wages and inclusive social protection based on that recognition.

This post is based on the author’s presentation on ‘Paradoxes of Migrants’ Exploitation in the Netherlands’ during an ISS expert meeting with representatives of the Dutch Ministries of Justice and Security and Foreign Affairs on 9 January 2020.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)

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EADI/ISS Series | Two faces of the automation revolution: impacts on working conditions of migrant labourers in the Dutch agri-food sector

by Tyler Williams, Oane Visser, Karin Astrid Siegmann and Petar Ivosevic

Rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are enabling production increases in the Dutch agri-food sector, but are also creating harsh working conditions as the sector remains dependent on manual labour, while implementing new technologies. To ensure better working conditions for migrants forming the majority of manual labourers in this sector, ‘worker-friendly’ implementation of new technologies is necessary to limit the negative effects of the automation revolution.

The ‘Threat’ of Automation?

Decades-old debates about the extent of job loss induced by the automation revolution were re-ignited by the seminal work of Frey and Osborne (2013), who suggested large numbers of jobs would be replaced by automation. Where jobs are not lost, automation impacts labour conditions as facilities are geared towards the optimal use of new technology. Novel ICTs offer possibilities to increase labour productivity and to free workers from harsh and repetitive tasks (OECD 2018). Yet they also enable high levels of remote, covert monitoring and measurement of work, often resulting in increased work pressure and the risk of turning workplaces into ‘electronic sweatshops’ (Fernie and Metcalf 1998).

Ever since Keynes (1930) warned about “technological unemployment” in his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, tech innovations have been eliminating jobs across sectors (e.g., in manufacturing), while simultaneously leading to the creation of new types of work (e.g., machine engineers). However, the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ (Schwab 2016) currently taking place might differ from earlier ones: automation is accelerating, affecting a wider variety of jobs, and is now also penetrating sectors like agriculture. Likely candidates for new automation waves are ‘3D jobs’ (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) which are overrepresented in agriculture and often performed by migrant workers (manual mushroom picking, for example, which is physically demanding and carries myriad other risks like respiratory issues). Therefore, this sector – understudied in research on automation – deserves attention.

Farm Robots and Migrant Workers

‘Milking robots’, drones, and (semi-)automated tractors have appeared on farms in the U.S. and the EU. As the second largest exporter of agricultural products and the ‘Silicon Valley of Agriculture’ (Schultz 2017), the Netherlands is at the forefront of such innovations. Yet despite this position, Dutch agriculture still depends strongly on manual labour, as the complexity and variability of nature (crops, animals, soils, and weather) have hampered automation.

Technological innovation and the recourse to low-paid, flexible migrant labour in the Dutch agri-food sector both represent cost-saving responses to the increased market power by supermarkets (Distrifood 2019) and the financialisation of agriculture. A FNV (Federation of Dutch Trade Unions) representative asserted: “Employers see those people as machines […]. Employers need fingers, cheap fingers, if I may call it like that”[1].

However, an educated migrant workforce provides benefits to employers beyond ‘cheap fingers’. The majority of labour migrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the largest group of migrant labour workers on Dutch soil (CBS 2019), hold a post-secondary education (Snel et al 2015: 524). As the Dutch are reluctant to do the low-paid 3D jobs, agriculture depends heavily on migrants from CEE countries, especially from Poland (Engbersen et al 2010). An estimated 30 percent of all CEE migrants in the Netherlands work in agri-food, contributing almost 2 billion euros to the country’s GDP in that sector (ABU 2018).

While technology can and does assist in and accelerate the harvesting process, this educated workforce can flexibly perform manifold tasks like identifying and communicating inconsistencies in products or processes to their supervisors, including plant illness, irregular production, etc. This makes them invaluable in improving agricultural production processes and output[2]. However, their working conditions remain precarious. Consequently, grasping the impact that technological innovations have on agriculture necessitates studying transnational labour.

To this end, ISS scholars – with the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) – initiated a research project titled ‘Technological change in the agro-food sector in the Netherlands: mapping the role and responses of CEE migrant workers’. So far, it has included interviews with organisations in the agri-food sector, trade unions, engineering/labour experts, and migrant workers; this formed the basis for the MA theses of Petar Ivosevic and Tyler Williams. First results were discussed during an ISS workshop with practitioners in December 2018, and a follow-up workshop will be held on 17 March 2020. In addition, two sessions on the topic will be organised at the 2020 EADI Conference taking place from 29 June to 2 July at the ISS.

Industry versus Workers

To date, the benefits of automation for industry and farm workers are highly unevenly distributed. For example, technologies such as (semi-)automated LED lighting allow for more crops to be grown indoors, accelerating crop growth and extending the growing season. This benefits the agricultural industry and supermarkets by leading to all-year production. It also initially improved agricultural labour conditions: workers received a more stable, year-round income and a reduction in time spent working outdoors in difficult weather conditions. However, these improvements also brought negative consequences for labourers. The workweek increased (from 40 to roughly 60 hours – occasionally 80 hours – per week), and smart LED-lighting technologies, sterile environments, and novel ways of conserving heat and humidity created harsher working conditions (cf. Pekkeriet 2019).

Moving Forward

 How can decent labour conditions for (migrant) farmworkers be ensured while further automation of agricultural workplaces takes place? First, further research involving (migrant) workers themselves, growers, and other practitioners is needed to inform policy. So far, policy debates on the future of agriculture have paid only scant attention to (migrant) workers and labour conditions. Farm labour ‘shortages’ in agriculture are often narrowly and one-sidedly discussed in terms of supposed ‘unwillingness’ to work in agriculture per se or the tendency of CEE migrants to return to their home countries where economic growth has picked up. Such a position ignores the harsh (and often insecure) working conditions or postulates them as a given. It strongly underestimates the (potential) role of ‘worker-friendly’ implementation of new technologies and decent labour conditions in shaping the quality (and attractiveness) of farm work. Support from Dutch labour unions – which have started to organise and include CEE migrant workers – could increase migrant workers’ voice. Insecure, dependent work arrangements, language problems, and fragmentation of the migrant workforce have thus far impeded migrants’ own collective action. Finally, food certifications in the Netherlands primarily target food safety and sustainability. Including social (labour-related) criteria would reward farms with sound labour conditions[3].

[1] FNV Representative. 18 June 2018, interviewed by Karin Astrid Siegmann and Petar Ivosevic.
[2] Municipality Westland Presentation, World Horticulture Centre, 19 February 2019.
[3] For instance, the pillar of fair food in the slow food manifesto includes respectful labour conditions.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

Photo-Tyler-image1About the authors:

Tyler Williams recently completed the ISS MA Development Studies’ track in Migration and Diversity and co-organised the abovementioned workshop.



Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international research project on the socio-economic effects of and responses to big data and automatization in agriculture.photo-KarinSiegmann-fromISSwebsite


Karin Astrid Siegmann is a Senior Lecturer in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), studying how precarious workers challenge marginalization of their labour.Photo-Petar-image1


Petar Ivosevic graduated from the ISS MA program in Development Studies in 2018, with a major in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies.