More than five hundred Asian cooks were brought to the Netherlands last year, while there was usually no work at all for them. Returning home does not always work. Many of them become victims of exploitation. Homelessness becomes a threat.
Restaurants were hardly open in 2020 but the immigration service IND had issued more than 500 new work visas to Asian migrants to work in the Dutch hospitality industry since the corona outbreak. The migrants landed at abandoned Schiphol airport only to discover that there was sometimes no work for them at all or that they would be paid much less than promised due to corona. This is according to a research done by platform for investigative journalism Investico for Trouw and De Groene Amsterdammer.
The migrants come to the Netherlands through a special migration scheme for Asian hospitality businesses. Professor of Migration Law Tesseltje de Lange finds it “very strange” that so many migrants were admitted last year. The migration scheme is based on the idea that no suitable personnel can be found in the Netherlands. “But because of the closure of the hospitality industry, many cooks are now unemployed. I expected that the Ministry of Social Affairs would temporarily stop the scheme”, says De Lange. In response, the ministry says that it is currently examining whether the scheme should be revised.
Many of the cooks who came to the Netherlands now compete with fellow professionals who have been fired due to corona for the scarce jobs at take-aways. If they do not find a new job within three months, their residence permits will expire.
They often cannot return home because they have invested high costs to come here. Cooks are almost always dependent on a middle person who charges thousands of euros to arrange a job and residence papers for them. Many migrants get into debt for this and assume that they can pay it off as soon as they earn a European salary. Those debts make it difficult to escape exploitative situations.
Cooks who are fired or escape exploitation are sometimes left with only a homeless shelter. Support workers from homeless shelters in The Hague, Amsterdam, Breda and Bergen op Zoom report that they have all provided shelters to numerous Asian cooks who lost their jobs in recent months. Investico spoke with cooks, support workers and lawyers and study the experiences of more than ten migrants, who also shared evidence such as employment contracts, payslips, visa, airline tickets and photos.
NOW support in your pocket
The cooks are sometimes exploited during their work: they often work twelve hours a day, live in poor conditions in the cellar or in the attic of the restaurant and are paid little. Chinese-language vacancies show that long working days and underpayment are standard practices. The vacancies state, for example: “austere lifestyle, can endure hardship and hard work”. And: “good stamina, 50 hours work week, four days off per month, 1300 euros per month”. That is well below the minimum wage and therefore illegal.
Migrants are paid fairly on paper, but often have to return hundreds of euros of their wages to their bosses, according to interviews and bank statements. In the meantime, employers do receive corona assistance based on the wages paid, which is therefore much higher than what the employee actually receives. Numerous employers do not pass on this NOW assistance to their employees, for whom it is actually intended, but put the subsidy in their own pockets.
“Inspection should have checked more instead of less”
The Asian Hospitality Industry Association VCHO says it does not recognize the abuses in the sector. The organization confirms that there is less need for cooks since corona. Yet new migrants are still needed, because many cooks returned to Asia after the corona outbreak and many cooks who received a residence permit did not eventually come, says the VCHO. The IND indicates that they do not keep any figures on this.
Last year, the Social Affairs and Employment Inspectorate (ISZW) postponed virtually all inspections on exploitation in the Asian hospitality industry due to the pandemic. “But the corona measures and the associated economic uncertainty make people more susceptible to exploitation,” says Brian Varma of the Coordination Centre against Human Trafficking CoMensha. He therefore believes that the inspectorate should have checked more.
In 2020, the ISZW received 24 reports of “serious harm or labour exploitation” in Asian hospitality businesses. That is 7 more than in 2019. Varma: “Those reports are probably the tip of the iceberg”.
Written by: Sylvana van den Braak, Karlijn Kuijpers en Emiel Woutersen
Translated by: Stichting Haian