16. apr. 2012

Truly Fantastic: Domestic labour union revolution in the Netherlands

At the end of last year, after additional “belt-tightening”, a new wave of strikes and pickets began. After heated debates and countless smaller actions, after seven rounds of unsuccessful negotiations and mass rallies in all major Dutch cities (called “Angry Marches” and “Marches for Respect”), on February 27th 2012, around 2000 cleaners occupied the University of Utrecht with the support of students. Like many other public institutions, the universities had began to cut spending “at the bottom”.

February this year saw the conclusion of a large two-year project by Casco, the Dutch Office For Art, Design and Theory, called the Grand Domestic Revolution. It included a group art exhibition, artist residences, public interventions and a string of collaborations between artists, theoreticians and activists. It closed with the Futurist Writing School, a week-long workshop in which a dozen attendees tried to join their forces in writing a novel, dedicated to the main issues of the Grand Domestic Revolution: a more equal sharing of domestic and care work, the legal and social recognition of paid domestic labour, architectural innovations for easier communal living, collective urban design, urban gardening, the right to use unmaintained or abandoned private property, the sharing of intellectual property, bartering, and the improvement of relationships on the level of (extended) families, residential communities and neighbourhoods.

Our literary venture was ambitious even by science fiction standards, not to mention the standards of actually existing politics. The curators’ (Binna Choi and Maiko Tanaka) request that the narrative should portray a near future that most of us would live to see (Utrecht in 2032), alleviated my fears since I had been afraid that I wouldn't be able to stand up to the challenge of a more long-term vision. How could I, I wondered during my trip to the Netherlands, when I live from day to day, from hand to mouth? At the same time, the decision to write about a future only twenty years away disappointed me, as I was reminded that my feeling of powerlessness wasn't mine alone.

I thought of Luisa Passerini’s essay “Utopia” and Desire (2002) where she compared the European perception of utopia after the year 1968 with the one that emerged after the year 1989 when the discourse about the “death of utopia” and the “end of history” became quite common . She wrote that the social movements of 1968 did not understand the subjects of history exclusively as subjects of action and knowledge but also as subjects of desire. Activists of both genders could hope for a better future and “demand the impossible”, because they decided that the object of desire counted less than the state of desire. Instead of a politics that would gravitate towards the fulfilment of needs, they advocated a politics that would demand more and more after every activist victory; they would demand something that no one had achieved before. In accordance with the pessimist belief that the future cannot not be different from the past or the present, the neo-conservative ideology of the early 1990s dismissed the utopian political imagination as something impossible or even absurd. Luisa Passerini concluded that in these conditions, utopian thought survived only in the shape of “nostalgia for rebellion [that] looks more to the past than to the future, it is a memory more than a hope; hope is mentioned but remains vague and unexpressed”.

In Utrecht, our writing was based on the exhibits, past public interventions, existing debates and tried and true social experiments, but the collective phrasing of such a wide field nevertheless – and despite the not-so-distant future setting – turned out to be too difficult. We were constantly carried away into fantasy, into scenarios that failed to establish a cognitive distance from the here and now (which is one of the definitions of speculative literature). On the contrary, our writing was based on free association, playing with genre conventions and escapism. So instead of writing about the mechanical glasshouse (the Meal Machine by Doris Denekamp and Arend Groosman, that simplifies the cultivation of vegetables), Experimental Kitchen Pharmacy (for which the artist Wietske Maas collected and processed a number of local medicinal herbs, following the advice of neighbours), housekeeping robots, the collectivization of routine domestic chores ( Kateřine Šedá’s project There's Nothing There), uninvited read-ins in people's living rooms and speaking trumpets (portable megaphones, made from recycled waste), we wrote about post-gender astronauts, cloning, cryogenics, cannibalism, mutations, lab-grown food and a ruling coalition, consisting of seventy-four parties that frolic on picnics while Utrecht slowly sinks into a toxic sea. Domestic revolution? No sight of it.

After two such sessions I began to ask myself who had stolen our utopian imagination. Was it Hollywood and its apocalyptic exploitation of science fiction, was it dishonest gibberish about sustainability or was it conservative politics – the only politics that still dares to call upon the benefit of “future generations”? Or did we take hope away from ourselves when we started thinking only about ourselves and the things that are within our reach? How can we save ourselves from the deterministic understanding of history, how can we resist generalizations and instead, raise a toast to the future perceived as a promise of surprise, as something unpredictable, unique and unrepeatable? How can our stories accommodate actually existing grandpas and grandmas who do not want to be associated with a future, filled with individual endings, but continue to tend to the orchard, the fruits of which they'll never taste?

Since I am used to Slovene ideas about what's possible, the real surprise came the next evening, when Casco was hosting the founder of the labour union of United Migrant Domestic Workers in the Netherlands (UMDW), Coring delos Reyes. By the way, the term “domestic work” includes all chores that are performed in the home of the employer, usually cleaning and washing clothes, babysitting, caring for the sick and elderly, shopping, cooking, small repairs, maintenance work and gardening. The UMDW union uses the English term “domestic work” and the Dutch term “schoonmakers” (“cleaners”, literally “beautifiers”) as synonyms for the above-mentioned feminized, undervalued and underpaid work, which is carried out at home, but also in private companies and public institutions. Both in the Netherlands and in Slovenia, domestic work continues to be largely performed by members of the most vulnerable social groups; by migrants and (older) women.

When Coring delos Reyes moved from the Philippines to the Netherlands in search of employment fifteen years ago she realized that – being an unregistered migrant – she couldn't even open a bank account. Because Dutch households that don't hire help more than three times per week don't have to register the payments with the tax office, she could get work on the black market. Nevertheless she couldn't rent an apartment, because the landlords are obliged to register their tenants. Due to strict laws tenants must provide their landlord with personal identification, the residence permit as well as the number of their bank account.

In 2002 she joined a cooperative which lent money to unregistered migrants with low interest rates. Four years later she founded the UMDW, which took the goal of protecting all migrant domestic workers regardless of their gender or legal status, no matter whether they worked in households, private companies or the public sector, and no matter whether they worked directly for an employer or through an outsourcing agency (a cleaning service). The self-organized and legally unrecognised labour union began collecting money through donations and founded several solidarity funds for deported workers, for emergency assistance (usually to pay for medical assistance to workers without a health insurance), for education and recreation. Because of their status and because they wanted to protect their members’ anonymity, the UMDW wired money to them through registered non-governmental organisations. Later, together with other migrant groups and unions, they started to educate and mobilize non-unionised workers and offer them a support system that included micro-credits as well as legal help.

Khadija Tahiri-Hyati, the president of the Schoonmakers labour union, who works as a cleaning lady in one of Amsterdam's hospitals stressed that even the cleaners with a contract and residence permit don't have it easy in the Netherlands: “The work that used to be done by eight people must now be done by four!” At the end of the 1990s, during the privatisation of the service sector, a fight broke out between the biggest agencies (Hago, Facilicom, Asito and ISS – the latter employs around 1300 workers in Slovenia as well, 90% of whom are women) in which the employees obviously took most of the beating. The lowering of hourly rates, raising norms (shorter times for cleaning larger areas) and cutting compensations for medical leave hit the cleaners in private companies first. With the economic crisis and austerity measures (freezing salaries in the public sector) the next in line were the employees who did maintenance work for governmental companies, public institutions and local municipalities.

In the summer of 2009, Schoonmakers and UMDW started a campaign to improve working conditions, raise the hourly rates and achieve paid sick leave.(1) At first, the Schoon genoeg! (“Quite enough!”, literally “Clean enough!”) campaign was met with resentment in the public sector because of the frozen salaries. The large unions, known for their careful negotiation tactics, also remained silent. In April 2010,(2) when the cleaners of the Dutch Railways decided to go on strike, a story began that, as mentioned, sounds rather fantastic from the Slovene perspective. The strike began with the physical occupation of the railway station in Utrecht, the busiest station in the country. Around 1500 contract workers came to work but instead of cleaning they sat in the station in the style of the Occupy! movement and unfolded their picket signs.(3) Three days later, the passengers had to try really hard to avoid the piles of trash and the question of what was going on. After six(4) days the leaders of the cleaning company and the railways agreed to negotiations during which the unions, speaking on behalf of around 150 000 workers, demanded – and after nine weeks achieved – a new collective contract. The contract included a 2.75% raise of the hourly rate, paid sick leave from the first day of absence from work, a paid course in Dutch for foreigners and the chance to attend vocational training. The cleaning company lost a legal battle and had to rehire the employees fired during the strike. Furthermore, the responsibility to sustain the newly gained working conditions is now equally shared between the outsourcing agency and the railway company, which practically means that neither can alleviate the higher costs of work by raising norms and putting a larger burden on the cleaners.

The strike was exceptional even by Dutch standards. Firstly, because the majority of the strikers consisted of the most vulnerable groups of workers; of migrants and women. Secondly, because the strike was advocating the rights of precarious workers, hired by outsourcing agencies, and because it was organised by two grassroots unions that received the support of legally and publicly recognised unions only after the negotiations. Schoonmakers and UMDW connected with Abvakabo/FNV and(5) FNV Bondgenoten, the latter of which represents around 470 000 workers from the service, industrial, metallurgic, agricultural, technical and transport sectors and is thus the largest Dutch union. Its speciality (and from the Slovene point of view another fantastic move) is that it represents temporary contract workers alongside permanent employees. Last but not least, the strike was exceptional because it succeeded. Historians say that such a strong movement had not been seen in the Netherlands since the year 1933, when dock workers decided they had had enough. This claim is supported by the fact that the achieved rights gave momentum to other workers: soon after the railway cleaners, the sanitation workers of Utrecht and Amsterdam went on strike for an “indefinite period of time”. Even though they work for local municipalities (the “frozen” public sector), the strike ended in ten days with a 1.5% raise for around 200 000 workers.

At the end of last year, after additional “belt-tightening”, a new wave of strikes and pickets began. After heated debates and countless smaller actions, after seven rounds of unsuccessful negotiations and mass rallies in all major Dutch cities (called “Angry Marches” and “Marches for Respect”), on February 27th 2012, around 2000 cleaners occupied the University of Utrecht with the support of students. Like many other public institutions, the universities had began to cut spending “at the bottom”. On March 5th, the occupation of the De Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam followed. The workers are demanding a new collective contract which includes the right to employment for indefinite time after nine months of contract work, the inclusion of domestic workers who work in the private sphere (at home) in the collective contract, the raise of the hourly wage rate for 50 cents, paid sick leave, the right to learn Dutch during work, paid travel expenses, a paid vacation, a 2 € bonus for working in several buildings in one day (or twice a day in the same building), an annual bonus of 300 € for full-time workers (and a proportionally smaller amount for part-time workers), penalties for employers who don't pay on time or pay the wrong amount, mandatory consultation between the employer and the union before the former decides to fire someone, better retirement conditions as well as the employers monthly contribution of 4 € per worker to the labour union.

The situation in Slovenia is not comparable to that in the Netherlands. In Slovenia, the majority of domestic workers, care workers and cleaners who work in the private sphere are paid in cash on hand, and new employers are sought out in informal ways. Despite this circumstance, these workers and contract workers who are “rented out” to companies and public institutions by cleaning agencies, could identify with the demands of UMDW and Schoonmakers easily, given that they work in similarly precarious conditions. After all, the structure of the employees is very similar as well: according to Zdenka Šadl’s study (2006), the majority of domestic workers consists of jobless women, poorly paid employed women, working class women, migrants and younger retired women. In other words: women living on the edge of poverty.

How to organize paid domestic workers in Slovenia when even unpaid chores performed by housewives or unpaid reproductive labour has yet to enter the realm of public debates and general concerns? At this point, the obstacles seem insurmountable. First of all: how to mobilize exhausted and overworked workers for activism? Second: how to connect workers who work for different wages, under different conditions and under different contracts for a wide range of employers and agencies? Third: how can a rebellion be initiated by the most vulnerable groups of workers, who live with the awareness of being disposable on the labour market and the knowledge that the employers have a ready-made answer to all forms of protest: “If you don't like it here you are free to leave”. Finally, the revolution, started by unionised migrant domestic workers in the Netherlands sounds truly fantastic to us in Slovenia because even our union leaders claim – let me quote Lidija Jerkič, the (female!) president of SKEI (union of workers in the metallurgic and electroindustrial sector) – that “women should blame themselves for the position they're in”.

It seems the time is ripe for a politics that will demand something nobody in Slovenia has achieved yet; time for utopian political imagination and “the impossible” struggle.  

First published here

The corrections and comments below were provided by Rebeca Pabon (FNV Bondgenoten).

(1) In the strikes of 2010 and 2012, respect was the most widely discussed demand by the workers and the media.
(2) The central train station in Utrecht was a strategic place for the occupation because all trains in The Netherlands pass through it. During the first cleaners' action in 2007, the main target was Schipol Airport (Amsterdam) because many workers there are politically active (and unionized) and because the cleaning agencies consider Schipol to be a very important client.
(3) In 2010, domestic workers participated in the action but did not stay at the station overnight. Compared to the 2010 strike, when both the domestic workers and the unions were hesitant about joining the action due to the risks it implied, many more domestic workers were mobilized in 2012. They participated in all actions during the 2012 strike which lasted for 105 days, including the occupations of universities in Amsterdam and Utrecht. You can read more about the reasons for occupying the universities in the article Struggles intersect at uni occupation in Amsterdam written by Donya Alinejad. 
(4) Negotiations started on the 5th day of the strike. 
(5) Schoonmakers and domestic workers connected with FNV Bondgenoten only. Abvakabo/FNV was not involved. 

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