Chapter News

A Letter from Afar: Labor Conditions and the Prospect of Organizing in the Netherlands

Marisa Cortright
January 17, 2021

Dear comrades,

This Salemite is reporting to you from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where I have worked for the last four years at a medium-sized, international architecture firm. I’ll describe to you the nature of the field, the context of the labor law that governs it, and the beginning of the struggle my coworkers and I have engaged in to change it. 

An ‘international’ architecture firm tends to be one that specializes in design (versus execution), builds abroad, and employs workers from all over the world. In Europe, it is common for these types of businesses to boast 20-30 different nationalities amongst their employees.

This breadth of national backgrounds both serves as a marketing feature (‘look how diverse we are’) as well as an impediment to developing a common understanding of the labor issues at hand,  given many non-Dutch workers’ lack of familiarity with the Dutch language, and, relatedly, their rights as workers in the Netherlands. 

All architecture firms in the Netherlands are bound by the industry-specific collective labor agreement, or CAO (‘collectieve arbeidsovereenkomst’). The CAO dictates minimum wages by function and skill level, as well as imposes minimum standards for working conditions. On the whole, this system ensures that salaries do not notably deviate between employers, nor between workers carrying out comparable tasks. However, it does allow for a significant degree of interpretation, from how an employer ‘ranks’ a worker’s skill level upon entering the company (and thus establishes their base wage), to how they match the often-vague function description in the CAO with the role of the worker.

Architectural workers’ capacity to challenge their employer’s interpretation of the CAO depends, of course, on their precarity. All workers in the Netherlands are employed on the basis of either a temporary or a permanent contract. This is nearly as simple as it sounds - if you work on a temporary contract, say, of six months, your employer has no obligation to offer you another contract at the end of the six months. On the other hand, if you are employed on a permanent contract, your employer cannot terminate your employment unless you violate the terms of the contract or unless they pay a severe liability, sometimes in the context of declaring bankruptcy.

This divide between workers on temporary and permanent contracts has important implications for who organizes within companies.

Understandably, those on temporary contracts typically do not agitate for fear of reprisal come time for their performance review. Such had been my experience during my two years on temporary contracts, and how stark the difference has been on a permanent one! However, only since the police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing global wave of protest have my coworkers and I formed a proto-union to demand change with respect to anti-Black racism within a framework of climate justice, equitable and living wages for all, and redressing harm within projects, such as gentrification. The fight is early but continues!