Working conditions at a number of foreign embassies in The Hague are very poor. A survey carried out by Radio Netherlands Worldwide has revealed that Dutch regulations on working conditions are completely ignored.
Interviews with dozens of embassy staff at nine embassies in The Hague have revealed that staff often work illegally, are sacked or their pay is deducted if they report sick and are subjected to random cuts in pay.
Below minimum wage
Marieke Manschot of the AbvaKabo FNV Union has called the situation below Dutch standards. The union for civil servants has been concerned for some time that embassies are not required to pay wage tax and social security contributions (for things like industrial disability insurance and insurance against loss of income in case of unemployment). At the Moroccan embassy, it is embassy staff themselves who have to pay both their employer’s contribution as well as their own personal contribution to the Dutch tax office.
The union says the embassy structurally pays below the minimum wage, it does not pay holiday pay and sometimes embassy staff do not receive the amount stated on their pay slip. The embassy staff in question live in the Netherlands and have either a Dutch passport or resident’s permit.
There are also problems at other embassies. Former Iraqi embassy staff say their wages were withheld if they reported sick, unless the employee was able to hand over a declaration from a family doctor. However, Dutch family doctors are not allowed to issue such declarations. The former Iraqi embassy employees did not want their names released by the media, just like almost all the other embassy staff RNW talked to. They are very afraid of being recognised.
One former Yemeni embassy employee was unable to get a contract or employment declaration because he says everybody at the embassy worked illegally. A former Chinese embassy worker spoke of employment on the basis of an “oral agreement”.
After a wildcat strike at the end of February, the AbvaKabo Union organised strikes at the Moroccan embassy and consulates. This week, they presented a petition to parliamentary foreign affairs specialists.
Moroccan diplomatic posts are well staffed and well organised. But that is not the case at smaller embassies with similar problems. There are also reports of intimidation on the work floor, no tea or lunch breaks and a ban on going outside during working hours.
Almost all the people RNW talked to feared reprisals. Some were afraid they might be breaking an oath to secrecy, which they took when they joined the diplomatic service.
It is difficult for embassy staff recruited in the Netherlands to file legal proceedings for labour conflicts because of their employer’s diplomatic immunity. Marieke Manschot says “there is no Dutch organisation that can force embassies to provide the working conditions staff are entitled to, even if there is a legal ruling which supports their case.”
One staff member at the Moroccan embassy, who was sacked for reporting sick, took her case to the Dutch Supreme Court and won. Nevertheless, the embassy cannot be forced to pay a pay claim or fine. The union says Dutch employees are at the mercy of the Moroccan ambassador’s whims. “These people are not protected and that is unacceptable,” says Ms Manschot.
The labour inspectorate says there is nothing it can do for the Dutch staff at foreign embassies in the Netherlands. The Foreign Ministry has published a list of labour conditions on its website that embassies should pay minimum wages and employees have to be insured and given holidays. But the embassies can ignore these conditions because of diplomatic immunity.
Meanwhile, the Dutch parliament has said it will ask for an explanation for the alleged underpayment of staff at the Moroccan embassy and consulates in the Netherlands.
All the embassies mentioned above have been asked for a reaction. The only response was from the Brazilian embassy, which responded by saying it respected Dutch labour laws with respect to staff recruited in the Netherlands.
If you work at an embassy in The Hague and you want to tell us about your working conditions, please send an e-mail to: [email protected]