The right to a decent workplace – where do we come in?

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Construction workers

It's nice and warm in the office – wonderful! A few days of Indian summer while fall is on our doorstep. When I hear some of my colleagues muttering that the weather is too hot to work comfortably, I quietly shake my head about how pampered we are. As employees of a Dutch bank we are rather privileged. All of our labour rights are well defended by legislation, employee participation and unions. With all of those safeguards, we really shouldn't be complaining.

If there is anything we can do to help prevent human rights violations, we will take that action. Maria Anne van Dijk Maria Anne van Dijk Head of Environmental Social & Ethical Risk & Policy

Our struggle with the heat wave is child's play compared to the position of certain other employees in the Netherlands. It's been only a few years since Portuguese construction workers were underpaid for their share in realising the tunnel project in the A2 motorway near Maastricht. And last summer, during a routine check, the labour inspectorate made some worrisome discoveries in holiday parks and asparagus farms. Employers were making use of illegal workers, infringing on legal working hours, and maintaining artificial arrangements to get inexpensive labour.

Labour exploitation violates human rights

In the Netherlands, the right to decent employment conditions is properly covered by the law. The word “labour exploitation” may evoke the image of Indian construction workers in Qatar or sweatshops in Bangladesh. But as illustrated above, this happens in the Netherlands as well. Apparently the competitive pressure in a number of sectors is so high that certain employers knowingly and willingly keep their wage costs down – at the expense of their staff. And let's admit it: as consumers, we're usually happy to get a great deal on something, too. So despite our solid legal system, the Netherlands is still home to employees working under subpar labour conditions. Their labour rights are not being respected, which reflects rather poorly on their employers. After all, labour rights are still human rights.

Abuse of vulnerable groups

Employee exploitation isn't as straightforward as just low wages and long working days. There's a surprisingly inventive range of ways employers have been overstepping the line. For example, employers arrange housing for their workers and charge exorbitantly high rents. Or employees are charged with “fines”, which boils down to having part of their income funnelled back to the employer. And then there's artificial constructions: situations where workers are registered as being employed in another EU country with lower minimum wages, even though they are doing all their work in the Netherlands.

Especially foreign workers make for a vulnerable group for malicious employers. These people generally do not speak the language and lack awareness of their rights and how to enforce those rights. Women and youngsters tend to have trouble standing up for themselves, creating an even more precarious situation.

Discussing conduct with clients

Within the Sustainable Banking department, we are continuously exploring our role in helping to prevent labour exploitation. The bank is active in a number of sensitive sectors such as construction, transport, agriculture and the temporary employment sector. By bringing up this topic and discussing it with potential and new clients, we gauge their awareness of the problems in these sectors, while we also work towards two of our goals:

  1. Guiding and helping out well-intentioned but underinformed employers. For instance, when they get in touch with a new employment agency, we urge them to check whether the agency respects employee rights.
  2. Confronting ill-intentioned employers who are knowingly misusing vulnerable groups of workers, and ultimately, if things do not change, refusing to work with them as a client. ABN AMRO's position is crystal clear: our business operations may not have a negative impact on people.

On paper it looks simple enough, but it can be tricky to discover how our clients “perform” in this respect.

Defining “good conduct”
What exactly entails “treating your staff well” can be a matter of quite some debate. Is minimum wage good enough? Or should they be paying five percent, or ten percent extra? This is why the law is the basic principle behind ABN AMRO's approach. Not only do we expect our clients to adhere to legal requirements, but they should also act in the spirit of the law. That means we do not approve of artificial arrangements or other means to keep a lid on wages.

Broaching a delicate topic
Labour exploitation is not exactly a light or casual subject of conversation. Although the last thing we want is to make our clients feel as if we're grilling them, a healthy discussion can be highly beneficial. Our recent dealings with an inland shipper make for a good example. The shipper was genuinely glad we visited to talk about this theme, as he believes it to be an important first step to raise awareness about fair labour relations in his sector. His crew includes Romanian workers who are treated well. During their initial few weeks, new employees receive wages while they discover the ins and outs of working aboard the ship. Unfortunately, the opposite situation is often the case on other vessels in this situation: workers get started without pay under the guise of a “traineeship”.

Not enforcers
Our special role as a bank sets us apart from the labour inspectorate and the police. When we bring the topic of responsible treatment of workers out into the open, we are not doing so to monitor clients or to enforce rules. And while it's not our position to identify or deal with every single wrong in this context, our relationship managers are proactively asking the right questions. If a company wants to be eligible for a loan from ABN AMRO, they'll have to be transparent. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of our clients are very careful about the way the treat their staff. However, sometimes we pick up on negative signals, or a client may draw negative media attention. Recently I was involved in a case like that and the bank is saying goodbye to this client.

Dialogue with our stakeholders

On 16 September, we are hosting a stakeholder dialogue about labour rights in the Netherlands. As requested by our clients, experts, NGOs, and trade organisations, the central topic of this edition will be “the right to a decent workplace”. Since all these parties believe ABN AMRO has a role to play, it's time to get some feedback. We intend to ask questions such as: what's our performance so far, and in which areas can we do better? Is our knowledge up-to-date, are we targeting the right sectors? Are we asking the right questions? Of course there‘s always room for improvement. If there is anything we can do to help prevent human rights violations, we will take that action. We’re looking forward to working with the answers we'll be receiving during the stakeholder dialogue. And to my colleagues' delight, the 16th of September will likely be a cool and rainy day.

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