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Last year, more than 500 Asian cooks received a working visa to work in the Netherlands through a special migration scheme. The government does not check whether these cooks are really necessary. Four questions.

Why does the Netherlands have such a scheme and how does it work?
There is a shortage of qualified Asian cooks in the Netherlands, according to the hospitality industry. After years of lobbying, a special migration scheme for Asian cooks was therefore introduced in 2014. Thanks to this “wok agreement”, qualified cooks from Asia can claim a temporary residence permit. The government does not check whether the cooks who come here are actually needed.

Why are the cooks vulnerable to exploitation?
Cooks who come here do not always know what rights they have in the Netherlands. They find it difficult to ask for help because they do not speak the language, know few people and often live in isolation in the attic or basement of the restaurant. They often do not dare to argue with their boss because they have to leave the country when they no longer have a job. Vacancies and contracts also show that employers impose departure fines: cooks have to pay thousands of euros if they do not fulfil the first two years of their contracts. “That is really not allowed,” says Conny Rijken, Professor of Human Trafficking at Tilburg University. “That is a tendency of forced labour.”

“I behave like a machine”
At the beginning of 2020, Mr. Yongle comes to the Netherlands to work in a Chinese restaurant. For 9000 euros, a Chinese employment agency helped him to get a job and a working visa. However, there is no work after his arrival. He calls the restaurant, but the owner is “on vacation”, the employment agency blocked his number. After months of searching, he finds a job in a sushi restaurant. He sleeps there in the attic, on a mattress between piles of take-away packages. He works six days a week, ten to eleven hours a day. He earns 1600 euros a month, but has to pay back 500 euros a month, he says. “I behave like a machine. I go to work and to bed, that’s it.” Leaving the restaurant is not an option: “I paid my boss a 2000 euros deposit, which I will not get back if I leave within three years”.

Why do restaurants still bring cooks to the Netherlands?
Some restaurant owners choose new migrants because they don’t know the language and culture. “They are stuck and are therefore prepared to work under bad conditions. They are easier to exploit,” says Barbra Velthuizen, director at HVO-Querido, which falls under the Amsterdam Human Trafficking Coordination Point.

The scheme is also used to recruit other personnel, while the exception is only intended for certified cooks. Immigration lawyer Merel Hoogendoorn also sees staff in servicing and dish washing with such a visa. “That is really bad. It is easy for entrepreneurs to bring cheap labour to the Netherlands. In this way, the scheme contributes to the creation of a people smuggling network.”

Are the migrants not required to show cooking diplomas?
The Inspectorate SZW suspects that the required cook diplomas are sometimes forged. “We see a lot of employees who would have been together in class while they did not know each other.” Online Chinese-language vacancies can be found where “no skills are required.” Intermediaries are offered to “arrange” certificates.

“I paid thousands of euros to come to Europe”
“The Chinese nationality Mr. Ling arrives at Schiphol in September 2020. He immediately goes into quarantine for two weeks in the attic room of the restaurant where he will be working. But if he asks his boss when he can start working, he keeps postponing it. That results in a lot of stress: “Of course that was not what I was told. I could see very clearly from his attitudes that he did not want me to come to work.” That feeling turns out to be true. The owner tells Ling that he doesn’t need any staff because of the Covid outbreak. After two months, Ling boarded the plane disappointed back to China, without having worked a single day. “I paid thousands of euros to come to Europe. I hoped to build a better life in the Netherlands, but it turned out to be a big disappointment.”

The IND says it always investigates whether the documents of the migrants are authentic. If the documents turn out to be falsified, the residence permit can be withdrawn. The IND does not know how often this has happened. There are no fines for forging certificates or diplomas.

“Often I felt desperate and I had to cry”
A few years ago, Mr Tao exchanged his job as a teacher in China for a cook in the Netherlands. He regrets as soon as he is here. He works six days a week, at least ten hours a day. In his “spare time”, he helps to refurbish a restaurant. He earns about 1600 euros a month, but his boss has a debit card to his account and withdraws single-handedly 300 to 400 euros every month. He sleeps in the basement of the restaurant. Due to a leakage, many of his belongings become wet, including his mattress. The boss doesn’t want him to go out. After months in the damp basement, Mr. Tao feels short of breath and coughs blood. His employer says he is no longer needed and Tao ends up on the street. “I often felt desperate and cried. I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know what to do.”

Mr. Yongle, Ling and Tao’s names have been changed for safety reasons. Their full names and the names of the restaurants and agencies are known to the editors.

Source: Trouw
Written by: Sylvana van den Braak, Karlijn Kuijpers en Emiel Woutersen
Translated by: Stichting Haian