Photo above: Michiel Emmelkamp, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

'Some years ago, dozens of Portuguese and Spanish workers on a building site for two power plants in Eemshaven, Groningen, didn’t get the pay they were entitled to. It’s also not unheard of for well-trained people in the Netherlands to lose out on a job because employers prefer to hire workers from, for example, Eastern Europe who are uninsured, underpaid and poorly housed. When you talk with the unions and with Dutch or foreign workers, which we do regularly at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you hear about many cases like these.'

'The society I believe in is one where people can live decent lives and earn a decent wage. It’s unbelievable that things like this are still happening in our country.'

Michiel Emmelkamp, senior policy officer at the European Integration Department (the Ministry’s EU department), isn’t afraid to speak his mind. ‘We’ve agreed that European citizens can work anywhere in the EU. In the Netherlands, lots of them work in sectors like transport, construction and industry. Conversely, many Dutch people are working in other European countries. It’s good that this is possible. It is in our economic interests as a trading nation, and a major benefit of European cooperation.’

Serving the Netherlands’ interests

According to Michiel, the Netherlands adheres to a single, straightforward principle when it comes to work. ‘Like the European Commission, we believe it’s key that everyone in Europe earns a decent wage. Equal pay for equal work at the same location. That is an absolute requirement. Whether you’re working on a building site in Bulgaria, for a transport company in Poland or at an industrial plant in France or the Netherlands, people doing the same work should be earning the same wage. No matter what their country of origin,’ Michiel emphasises. ‘That’s how we prevent labour exploitation and unfair competition.'

'The Dutch government and parliament want to lay down these agreements in the European Decent Work Agenda. But not all 28 EU member states agree. Countries like Germany and France are on our side, but Poland and Romania, for instance, aren’t very enthusiastic. They see lower wages as giving them a competitive edge. If we want changes to be made to the European rules on fair pay for work, we need to convince these countries of our vision and ideas. Then we’ll be able to uphold the agreements we’ve made in The Hague. And we’ll be serving the Netherlands’ interests.’

‘Winning’ a majority

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs addresses this issue through its diplomatic work. ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment is the primary actor on this theme,’ Michiel says, ‘but our two ministries have joined forces. It’s up to our diplomats in Brussels and at the embassies in EU capitals to get a majority of member states to endorse our vision and to establish a uniform Decent Work Agenda. We’ve not yet achieved this goal.’

Diplomatic skill

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment is the initiator of the Decent Work Agenda. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs works closely with other ministries on several specific issues. It draws on their specialist knowledge, while providing advice and support based on its own diplomatic expertise. In this way, the ministries jointly serve the interests of the Netherlands in Europe.

Agreement

A majority in this case means that at least 16 of the 28 member states must approve the Netherlands’ proposal. In addition, those countries must represent at least 65% of the EU population. ‘This isn’t easy,’ Michiel admits. ‘And that’s why it’s crucial that we draw on the expertise of our diplomats in countries like Poland and Romania. They know exactly what their host country’s concerns are and how we can best address them, resulting in the most effective proposal. Now and then we may need to give undertakings on other political issues in order to reach agreement. Trade-offs are necessary sometimes and that’s alright as long as they don’t go against Dutch interests. The main thing is that, in the European Union, we keep working with other countries to arrive at joint solutions.’

Throughout Europe

‘I truly hope that all our efforts will eventually result in a Decent Work Agenda that will end exploitation and unfair competition. And ensure that all workers throughout Europe get equal pay for equal work. In the port of Eemshaven, in greenhouses in North Brabant, on assembly lines in North Holland and on building sites in Gelderland.’

Standing up for the Netherlands’ interests

During negotiations in the European Union, Dutch government ministries serve the Netherlands’ interests. They do this in many different fields, from the euro crisis to climate change and migration. What these interests are is determined by the House of Representatives and the government. A lot of the work, including many of the negotiations, is carried out by civil servants and diplomats. The Netherlands’ reputation is that of a constructive but also critical EU member state which strives for an EU that focuses on the essentials, creates economic growth through innovation, and involves citizens in policy processes.