In his home country Bulgaria, Viktor, a logistical engineer, earned €350 a month as head of an emergency response unit at the national railway company. In the Netherlands, he works as a handyman, making up to €100 cash a day – less than his Dutch counterparts – and paying no taxes or social insurance.
The Netherlands, Britain and several other western European countries have maintained work permit requirements for Bulgarians and Romanians since they joined the EU in 2007. But even with that restriction, there has been a steady rise in immigration from those countries. Those requirements will expire on January 1, intensifying fears about a further rise in immigration and what this could mean for wages and services.
Mr Asscher compared the situation with a “Code Orange”, the warning Dutch authorities issue when high water levels threaten to overwhelm the dikes.
Sitting in his sister Maria’s smoky kitchen in a heavily eastern European neighbourhood near Amsterdam, an immigrant Viktor however said such concerns are overblown. “There are only seven million people in Bulgaria, and two million have emigrated since the fall of communism. Most of the people who want to leave have left already,” he said.
The Netherlands once boasted of its history as an asylum for immigrants, such as the refugee Jews and Protestants who flocked there in the 16th century.
But over the past decade, it has been wracked by debates over assimilation, with the rightwing populist Geert Wilders denouncing the country’s Muslim immigrants, mainly ethnic Moroccans and Turks. More recently he has turned his fire on immigrants from eastern and central Europe, setting up a controversial website last year to solicit complaints about their behaviour.
Such attacks play on fears that eastern Europeans are prone to crime and compete for Dutch jobs, driving down wages, particularly for unskilled labour.
With the Netherlands in the midst of a year-long recession and unemployment up from 4.4 per cent in 2010 to 7 per cent, such concerns have sharpened.
The government, a coalition between the centre-right Liberals of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Mr Asscher’s centre-left Labour party, has mainly played down the immigration issue. But with polls showing the Socialists and the Freedom party pulling ahead, they are starting to feel the pressure.
The numbers of eastern Europeans in the Netherlands have indeed grown rapidly since EU expansion. Since 2005, the official Polish-born population in this country of 17m has more than doubled to 110,000, while the Bulgarian and Romanian communities have quadrupled to a combined 30,000.
Such figures count only those immigrants who have officially registered as residents; unofficial residents may add another 50 per cent to those figures.
Most economists think such immigration is a boon to the economy. A recent study by the Dutch think-tank SEO Economic Research found that labour migration from eastern Europe was mainly temporary, and that it had little or no effect on local employment or wages while contributing a net €1,800 a head to the government treasury.
But that study assumed that employers who hire foreign workers observe Dutch labour law, including the national sector-wide wage agreements between employers and unions.
“On the big energy plant construction projects we researched in the north, we found that scarcely any firms were sticking to the wage agreements,” said Herman Pol, an organiser for the main Dutch metalworkers’ union. Contractors, he said, typically won bids with offers that required them to undercut wage norms by several euros an hour.
Europeans are braced for a new age of austerity as governments across the region take action to eliminate unsustainable budget deficits
There is no realistic chance that the government will maintain work permits for Bulgaria and Romania after January 1, as it would explicitly violate EU law.
“The end of the work permission won’t be a big difference,” said one immigrant, who plans to return to Bulgaria in a year or two anyway. “Whether you have a permit or not, the main question is, where can I work?” – FT