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Poles at sharp end of Dutch politics

25.04.11, 20:34
Artykuł z Financial Times

Poles at sharp end of Dutch politics

By Matt Steinglass in Amsterdam

Published: April 24 2011 17:45 | Last updated: April 24 2011 17:45

Lukasz and Alicja left their native Poland for the Netherlands 10 months ago, expecting to find an open and tolerant society befitting their hosts’ reputation. They were disappointed.

Like most of the estimated 150,000 Polish migrants here, the couple found work through employment agencies, which put them in the tight-packed boarding houses known as “Polish hotels”. Alicja, 24, picked flowers while Lukasz, 26, who has a university degree in logistics, started picking tomatoes then moved on to repairing trucks.

After taxes, social insurance and rent, they were left with about €200 ($290) each per week. Salaries like these have attracted tens of thousands of young Poles such as Lukasz and Alicja since 2007, when the Netherlands opened its labour market to them.

East European migrants now provide most of the labour force for the Netherlands’ greenhouse-based agricultural industry. The Dutch experience is being watched by Germany and Austria, which open their borders to east European workers on May 1.

Unemployment in the Netherlands stands at 4.3 per cent, well below the European Union average of 9.5 per cent. But with the electoral trend to the right, politicians have begun attacking immigration from eastern Europe.

In provincial elections <,Authorised=false.html?> last month, Geert Wilders, the far-right anti-Islamic politician, accused Polish workers of crime, drunkenness and taking Dutch jobs. Even politicians from the Labour and Socialist parties have warned of a “tsunami” of east Europeans overwhelming Dutch social services.

Now Lukasz and Alicja fear that, like the Turkish and Moroccan migrants who came here in the 1970s and 1980s, the Poles have fallen victim to the Netherlands’ love-hate relationship with immigrants.

“They decided to open the borders themselves, and now they want us to go home,” says Lukasz. “It’s absurd.”

Until recently campaigns against east European immigrants were the exclusive province of Mr Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV). Since elections last year <> made the PVV the third-largest party, mainstream parties have taken up the issue. Earlier this month the rhetoric became government policy, when Henk Kamp, minister of social affairs from the governing Liberal party, announced plans to send back home east Europeans who had been unemployed for more than three months.

Mr Kamp’s plans have turned a domestic political issue into a European controversy.

The Polish government says <> deporting its citizens for economic reasons would violate EU rules on labour migration. Viviane Reding, European Commission vice-president, has warned <> that the Commission will “loudly and clearly” oppose Dutch rules that do not meet EU standards. Dutch officials admit their proposal to require five years’ residency before claiming unemployment benefits violates EU agreements.

Meanwhile, Polish officials point out that, like Lukasz and Alicja, most Polish migrants pay Dutch taxes and social insurance premiums. “We are talking about people who are entitled under Dutch law to receive such assistance,” says Janusz Wolosz, spokesman for the Polish embassy in The Hague.

Louis Bontes, a former policeman turned PVV member of parliament, cites complaints of public drunkenness and noise, and opposition to Poles claiming unemployment or other social benefits. “I get e-mails from citizens who say the problems keep getting worse,” he says. However, much of the antipathy to Polish immigrants reflects Dutch fear of ethnic and cultural change. Complaints that Polish migrants degrade neighbourhoods often refer not so much to their behaviour as to the fact that they are there.

“People can’t identify any more with the place where they live,” says Mr Bontes. “You can see why someone who lives in one of these streets in Rotterdam where only 20-30 per cent of the people are native Rotterdammers just doesn’t feel comfortable there anymore, period.”

Civic groups that provide services for Polish migrants agree a minority can create social burdens. Poles have become the “dominant group” at some homeless shelters, says Ernst-Jan Stroes, director of Den Haag East Europe Foundation.

But the groups say the employment agencies are partly to blame. The agencies often house their workers four or more to a room in squalid converted family housing, while others are housed in trailer parks, also isolated from Dutch society.

“The employment agencies abuse them, the slum landlords rip them off and in the end they wind up out on the street,” says Mr Stroes.

After seven years in the Netherlands, Krystyna Cichon speaks fluent Dutch and works for a local water utility. “I can tell you stories about employment agencies you wouldn’t believe,” she says, recalling the problems she faced when she first arrived.

An agency brought her from Poland in 2004 with a promise of work folding clothes for a fashion label, Ms Cichon says. Instead, she and six other women were deposited at a meat factory and ordered to pack chicken parts on an assembly line. She says such deception is routine at the less reputable agencies.

Janusz and Alicja have now saved up enough to rent a small apartment.

But, like most Poles working here, they still have virtually no contact with local people apart from supervisors at work.

“The Dutch think they are very open,” says Ms Cichon. “But they’re not.”

Janusz and Alicja’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity
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