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we want to be seen!!

‘We want to be seen!’ That was the message shouted by about 70 cleaners who walked into a meeting in Doorn, The Netherlands, where Dutch employer’s organisation VNO-NCW, and the labour union CNV held their spring seminar about the social dialogue. The cleaners have been on strike for 10 weeks now. For better working conditions, yes, but not directly more money. Above all, they want dignity, recognition.

I must confess that I felt a bit uncomfortable when the meeting room filled with the strikers and with the smell of stale cigarettes and beer; I always feel a bit apprehensive among mobs, groups of people who set the agenda by sheer outnumbering you, and by sheer volume of voices. But okay, the point this group makes is legitimate, and significant. Cleaning jobs in Holland have more and more been delegated to big companies who give their employees under-par contracts with too little wages and no payment when one is ill. Competing with each other, these companies offer cheaper and cheaper contracts to those firms which want to use their cleaning services, and then strip down the job ‘Taylor-made’ in small actions which are to be performed in shorter and shorter time. 90 seconds to clean a toilet is apparently the standard now (how long do you spend on that job at home?).
Meanwhile in the companies where they do their job, they are confronted with smug employers and employees for whom cleaning is a nuisance and for whom the cleaner is a nonentity. Two years ago the cleaners had their first strike about pretty much the same issues. Apparently, nothing has changed since, despite the promises.
What I find amazing is that the strike is only secondarily about payment, and primarily about dignity and recognition. The strike in 2010 did a lot of credit by the general public. We walked through the garbage collecting in Amsterdam Central Station, and we gave the cleaners thumbs up. But the employers and the people who hire the cleaners have not learned their lesson yet.
What I also find intriguing is that this strike, and the strike of 2010, seems to be ‘off-Broadway’, a bit outside the main stream of the labour unions. Sure, the Dutch labour union FNV has given its stamp to the strike, but when one reads the complaints about how their plight, and that of other groups, has been going unnoticed in the social dialogue in Holland, one can only read serious criticism about the functioning of the labour unions.
Still, it is brilliant, to shout ‘We want to be seen’ in a time that people in Europe fear about a penny less on their paycheque. Hope they get what they want, recognition, and yes, also a bit more on their paycheque.

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Originally published 14 March 2012

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