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Washed-up at 50: age discrimination in the Netherlands

by Mindy Ran

Policymakers rarely discuss the impact of austerity on the over-50s, but in real terms no other age group has been harder hit. In the Netherlands, tens of thousands of workers who spent years building up a career, savings and a livelihood, have found themselves laid off as a result of the crisis and forced into claiming social benefits and subsequent poverty.

While the government has been looking at the financial impact of long-term unemployment of older workers as the population ages, the human cost is rarely considered.

Tom* is in his fifties. Formerly an environmental policymaker in local government, he has been unemployed since he lost his job five years ago.

He retrained in corporate and social responsibility, doing a course which included a six-month work placement. Tim travelled 220 kilometres everyday to attend the placement, but he was not hired at the end of his trial. Now, with no income and no more savings, Tom is applying for social benefits – something he has avoided until now.

“They treat you like a criminal, living off the purse of the taxpayers. You are seen as a loser, but it was not my choice to leave my job. I am out of my comfort zone. My life has become more and more of a struggle.”

The statistics prove that Tom is not alone. Out of 447,000 people on welfare benefits in the Netherlands, just under half (217,000) are over 45 years of age according to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). Data also shows that while unemployment is going down for certain groups like young people, employment is still rising for the over-45s.

Furthermore, 60 per cent of people on benefits over the age of 45 are likely to be so for at least three years. By comparison, general figures show that almost half all unemployment people remain on benefits for at least one year.

“It’s a huge problem if you lose your job at 50 or 55. You become dependent on your partner [if you have one], or you end up on social welfare, which is 70 per cent of minimum wage,” said Chris Driessen, a senior policy advisor at Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (FNV, or the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions in English).

“So, you may suddenly find yourself in poverty at 55, with no access to any pension benefits until after 67. This is happening to a growing number of people. It is one of the largest social problems in the Netherlands.”

It was startlingly easy for Equal Times to find individuals who had been suddenly plunged into poverty at a time in their lives when they should have been reaching the apex of their careers.

Although there is no data on the subject, FNV has found that many older workers are being paid more than the wages outlined in their collective bargaining agreements because they are considered more “productive”.

As a result, employers often prefer young (read: cheaper) workers, despite the large group of workers aged between 50 and 65 on the labour market because of the post-war baby boom.

 

Strategies and recommendations

The economic reality of an ageing population, coupled with long-term unemployment amongst older workers has not gone unnoticed by the Dutch government. In a 142-page 2014 report published by the OECD, the impact of current strategies and proposed recommendations are laid out in detail – albeit almost solely through the lens of economic growth.

Recommendations include the adjustment of wage-setting procedures to focus on performance and not tenure, the reform of employment protections to make it easier to fire workers, the removal of mandatory age-based retirement, as well as closing “pathways to early retirement”.

Even further removing the possibility of personal autonomy, for those facing redundancy or unemployment after 2016, the government is proposing the abolition of severance pay, replacing it with a “transition budget” that must be used for “work-to-work” training, in an effort to avoid unemployment altogether.

However, the report also states that “the high incidence of long-term unemployment – 57 per cent for those 55 and over – is reason for concern, particularly since the unemployment rate for older workers (55-64) almost doubled over the past decade”. The report notes that only 3.7 per cent of older jobseekers are recruited or hired.

This clear dichotomy leaves most of that 57 per cent forced to look for non-existent jobs until they are allowed to retire (currently at 64, but soon to be 67), with the caveat that any “suitable” work offered must be accepted – or welfare benefits will be forfeited.

“In the Netherlands, instead of fighting unemployment, we fight the unemployed,” Maaike Zorgman, director of FNV’s jobseekers unit, tells Equal Times. “Everyone who receives benefits is expected to accept any job offered, regardless of education or experience. Often they are streamed into precarious jobs at the bottom of the labour market.”

Alice* is an African-American woman in her fifties, a master’s degree-holder who has been living and working in the Netherlands since 1986. Despite having spent her career working in many of Amsterdam’s top theatres, in 2012 she found herself out of work and on the dole. She currently works as a cleaner at a department store.

“I am still dealing with the fact that I am cleaning. When I was first living here, I was a theatre production director and sponsored by the government,” she says.

For Alice, her situation is compounded not only by age discrimination, but also what she refers to as a “colonial” attitude. “You have a certain amount of people of colour who don’t fit in here, or don’t have a Dutch education, or don’t speak Dutch fluently and the solution is always cleaning. With their past, can’t they be more reflective than that?”

Since informing her work coach that asking her to cut her dreadlocks was “unprofessional” on his part, she has since given up on finding work that matches her education and experience.

 

Labbekakken

While there are national policies that impact on Work, Participation and Income (the government agency dealing with unemployment and welfare benefits), Amsterdam has it’s own policies, implemented by the city council, under the heading “Amsterdam Inclusive Labour Market”.

When Equal Times asked Amsterdam’s WPI spokesperson, Nico van Rossen, to comment on the allegation that older non-white workers are streamed into cleaning jobs, his responded: “we do not recognise these allegations.”

But Lisa does. A white Dutch woman in her fifties, she has been unemployed and on benefits since 2014. She concedes that “it must be worse for older, black women” but for Lisa, things are bad enough. She had been a project manager for 12 years, but lost her job after the foundation she worked for lost its funding.

Like all unemployed people in the Netherlands, Lisa was assigned a work coach to help her find a job. If she refuses to accept a job found by the work coach, she loses her benefits. But Lisa hasn’t found the process particularly helpful.

“They sent me to a ‘CV Doctor’ who said my CV was too long, so he took most of it out. But what was most disturbing to me was that everywhere my CV said “manager”, I had to change that into employee or co-worker. He said that was necessary to get another job.

“There was also a discussion about whether I should put my birth year on my CV. In the end we kept it but I have the feeling that every year you get older, it gets worse.”

Zorgman is familiar with such stories. “It’s called ‘CV adjustment’”. In an uneven job market where low-paid, unskilled work is more available then more highly-skilled work “many employers don’t want over-qualified staff.”

Lisa admits that she feels “hopeless” about finding a job and says the whole experience has had a “very negative” impact on her mental health. “It’s very degrading, you are no longer taken seriously.”

For Zorgman, the current system and attitude is unsustainable; she believes there must be a radical change in the way older jobseekers are treated. “The rhetoric is that it is not the lack of jobs, but personal failures and shortcomings that are the causes of unemployment. This is a stubborn fairy tale,” she says.

“Politicians and the leader of the employers’ organisation are guilty of creating this image. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said “you should be looking for work instead of benefits” and the chairman of the VNO/NCW employers organization, Hans de Boer, has referred to benefits claimants as labbekakken (lazy bums). We have to provide more employment, or a better distribution of work, but we have to stop blaming the benefit claimants.”

 

*Not his/her real name.

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