Low wages and cheap labour: who will break the dominance of supermarkets?

Karin Astrid Siegmann - 2022

With their enormous dominance, supermarkets exert pressure on the agricultural sector. As a result, workers, at the bottom of the labour market, find themselves sidelined. Researcher Karin Astrid Siegmann of the International Institute of Social Studies argues in newspaper AD that this does not have to be the case and that workers themselves can change this weak position.

Your area of expertise in no more than a hundred words?

"I study the situation of people working at the bottom of the labour market. Think of agriculture, domestic work and the sex industry. These are precarious and insecure jobs. I mainly investigate how social power relations work through which factors such as gender and migration weaken the position of workers."

Why do you have a miniature of a greenhouse in your hand?

"It represents the horticulture sector and how workers can be better protected. I see vans from employment agencies coming into my residential area every morning to pick up workers for horticulturists in Westland. The employment agency offers them housing, transport and things like insurance in addition to employment. This is easy for someone without networks in the Netherlands, but this also creates multiple dependencies. This makes the workers vulnerable. If they lose their jobs, they often lose their homes as well."

Why do employers offer that total package of facilities?

"For migrant workers, the cost of all those facilities is deductible from the gross salary, reducing the net labour cost for the horticulturist."

So these workers are vulnerable. What makes their position weak?

"There are phased employment contracts. In the first phase, a worker has few rights. After 78 weeks, the worker should move on to phase B, with more rights. But they usually don't get that far, because then the employee works for the same horticulturist through another employment agency, for instance. So phase A starts all over again."

Can an employee do anything about that?

"If you are empowered, you risk being fired. Moreover, most workers are unable to speak up. They are not sufficiently familiar with Dutch laws and regulations. They work a lot and have little time to familiarise themselves with it. They also often do not build up a Dutch social network."

Is it the fault of horticulturists and employment agencies?

"In the whole discussion, now also with the protesting farmers, I miss the role of the supermarkets. Albert Heijn and Jumbo together have a market share of almost 60 per cent. With that enormous position of power, they can exert pressure on the agricultural sector. They enforce such low prices that horticulturists are unable to invest in labour-replacement technology, which means cheap labour remains necessary."

Read the full article (in Dutch) onĀ ad.nl

Researcher

dr. Karin Astrid Siegmann

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