“The Polish are taking away our jobs”
During the 80s, the first Sikh came to our country as political refugees; afterwards there was an economic migration of mostly male, single, and poorly trained and educated labourers. With their experience in the Indian agriculture, they almost automatically ended up as seasonal labourers in the fruit sector in the provinces of Limburg and Oost-Brabant, where they were known for their productivity and efficiency.
‘The Indians are now slowly beginning to find their way out of the fruit sector’, says Lili Van Heers, who has written a book on the Sikh community. ‘They find jobs in other sectors, or they start up a business of their own. Mostly grocery stores, night shops or telephone and internet stores. But the fruit sector remains the most important economical niche for them.’ This niche has come under a lot of stress however, now that foreign labourers and fruit producers seem to have found each other.
Because of its temporary job opportunities, the fruit sector is not a very attractive sector for people who are looking for a job. When you take the whole sector into account, there are only about 3.000 to 4.000 people who have a steady job, according to the Belgian farmers Association Boerenbond and the Christian union ACV. The rest is employed via temporary contracts.
Since both picking and sorting are considered to be hard-to-fill jobs, fruit producers more and more turn to foreign labourers. The list of these “critical professions” is one of the transitional measures (until 2009) to allow EU citizens from the new Eastern European member states access to our job market. Employers from sectors with a shortage of labourers can thus – via a simplified procedure – temporarily employ foreigners.
All in all, the horticulture sector – of which the fruit sector is a part – employed 43.000 to 44.000 seasonal labourers last year. ‘Within this sector, it was especially the fruit sector that issued out temporary work permits (17.000)’, says Luc Van Oirbeek of the ‘Boerenbond’. ‘Last year, the horticulture sector alone was responsible for 70% of the work permits of the critical professions.’ Most permits were issued out to Polish labourers, but Bulgarians and Romanians also came here to work. The number of permits is not equal to the exact number of people who actually worked here’, according to Van Oirbeek. ‘Quite a lot of seasonal labourers work for more than one boss, and you need a separate permit for each employer’.
‘The seasonal labour in the fruit sector is characterized by a coming and going of groups of labourers’, says Ludo Istas, from the ACV-Central Food and Services in Hasselt. ‘Over the last 30 years we saw just one constant: the Belgians don’t want to do this work anymore. The increase in scale, the more flexible regulations concerning seasonal labour and the checking of illegal labour have made it impossible for people to earn some quick money on the side – which all locals used to do 30 years ago. After the Belgians, the Sikh came to work in the critical sectors. As a result of changes in the immigration laws, they weren’t allowed to work anymore, after which the Spanish and the Portuguese took over. After the big regularization, the Sikh got to work again. Nowadays, there’s a flow of labour force from the new member states, which will dry out as soon as the standard of living in those countries goes up. The non-taxable minimum wage in the fruit sector – 7.37 euro/hour – is still very attractive for foreigners. But this goes for everyone, including the Belgians of Indian descent. So why does the fruit sector seek foreign workers?
‘The Polish have one big advantage over the Indians’, says Van Oirbeek: ‘Availability. The timing of the picking depends on climatological factors, which are variable. The Polish, who live with the farmers, are immediately available and very flexible when it comes to working hours. That’s different from the Indians, who live more scattered and have a more normal family life’.
In the past, the fruit sector frequently made the headlines because not all farmers were in compliance with the law, and employed quite a number of illegal workers. ‘But a lot has taken a turn for the better’, says Istas. ‘The sector got favourable social and employers’ tax arrangements for temporary employment. Even the fruit sorting companies – active from 1 January to 31 December – can enjoy these favourable arrangements concerning seasonal labour, which may not be entirely correct. The handling of illegal employment and the enforcing of rules concerning housing have had an effect and pushed back the abuses’.
But according to Indian Rajender Singh from Sint-Truiden, illegal labour is still an intrinsic part of the sector, and he claims that the Polish are not working entirely legal either. ‘They just stay longer than they are allowed to, and they work at lower rates. No wonder the farmers choose them over us’. Lili Van Heers and Masala vzw, who work with people without papers, confirm this.
‘I have no idea about the scale, and you won’t find any witnesses. The problem of illegal labour is not as big as it used to be anymore, but everyone knows that there are still people – from all four corners of the word – working illegally in the fruit sector. People without papers need means to survive’, says Liesbeth De Staelen from Masala. ‘And believe me, when I say you can tamper with pay checks: how will you check for example, if all the extra hours are written down? If you don’t agree, you just get fired, even though it’s more often a matter of mutual agreements, than it is of economic exploitation’.
Nowadays the sector is being checked regularly to see if no people without papers are being employed, or that no social fraud is committed. As a result, the illegal labour has switched to other – less checked – hours. The sector itself complains about these never-ending rumours about illegal labour. Van Oirsbeek: ‘We can’t shed this image. As a sector, we’re really on the right track, but it’s just impossible to exclude all social fraud. If you really want to, there are ways. It’s the people who purposely commit fraud that need to be dealt with severely. But sometimes small-scale producers commit fraud as well, without realizing it, since the legislation is so complex. You also need to realize that the fines on employing people without papers are so high, that the producers don’t want to risk it: 4.000 euro per person isn’t peanuts.’