Report: GUE/NGL travels to the Netherlands for study days
MEPs and staff travelled to the Netherlands for a packed two days of talks and meetings hosted by the Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren) and the Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij), the two Dutch delegations in GUE/NGL. The purpose was to gain a greater understanding of the issues affecting Dutch citizens in a broader context of the struggles taking place in Europe.
Photos of the study days are available here - https://www.flickr.com/photos/guengl/albums/72157669803079712/with/27962022576/
• Session 1: Animal transport & intensive livestock farming
The first event in Amsterdam’s historic Beurs van Berlage focused on animal transport and intensive livestock farming with presenters Lesley Moffat, director of Eyes on Animals, and Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor of Compassion in World Farming. MEPs Anja Hazekamp and Miguel Viegas co-chaired the session.
Farm animals suffer because of poor conditions during transportation. They are placed in crammed conditions, suffer from exhaustion and get injured during transportation. Eyes on Animals document welfare violations of farm animals, inspects livestock markets and expose cases of suffering to authorities, law enforcers and the industry.
Exports of cattle and poultry to Turkey, which begun in 2010, are of particular concern. France, Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and Austria are among the largest exporters to Turkey. Eyes on Animals has called on these countries to end land exports to Turkey during the summer months when conditions are at their most dire. Trucks were found to have appalling welfare conditions with temperatures inside exceeding the limits allowed by law.
Evidence is sent to officials for follow-up and action but inspectors do not always act, some have no field experience, or are poorly prepared to conduct inspections. Eyes on Animals provides trainings to police officers to strengthen inspections and works with industry to improve conditions. However many still place profits over animal welfare, underlining the need for better enforcement, better legislation and shorter transport times.
Peter Stevenson from Compassion in World Farming presented examples of animal welfare violations that are routine in the EU arguing that industrial livestock production is damaging not just to animal welfare but also to food security, natural resources, climate and health. Stevenson criticised the practice of feeding cereals to farm animals as inefficient whereby the conversion of 100 calories of cereals corresponds only to 17-30 calories of meat and milk. This system-wide reliance on cereals for animal feed poses serious threats to food security by reducing availability of grain for human food consumption and causes long-term environmental problems.
Compassion in World Farming proposes a move to a food and farming system that nurtures health, natural resources and animal welfare:
1 - Transform the role of livestock -the proper function of livestock in farming is to convert materials we cannot consume into food that we can eat.
2 - Replace the CAP with a common food and farming policy - a policy that delivers on nutritious food, promotes a healthy diet, achieves food security, restores soil, water and biodiversity and meets climate change targets. This policy also needs to deliver on social equity; it is unacceptable that the poorest eat the unhealthiest food.
3 - Challenge the myth that farmers need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 - agribusinesses are pushing for further industrialisation of the sector on this basis. We don’t need to produce large amounts of extra food. We simply need to use what we produce more wisely.
4 - Encourage reduction of meat and dairy consumption - we can’t hit Paris target without a reduction in meat and dairy consumption. Would reduce incidence of heart disease and certain cancers.
5 - Tackle lock-ins of industrial agriculture - the political power of agribusiness, which includes the providers of inputs such as chemicals producers, pesticides, and animal pharmaceuticals, must be stemmed.
• Session 2: Fracking and conventional gas extraction
Annemarie Heite, founder of Stille Beving, gave an emotional personal testimony of how her life changed after companies started to extract large amounts of gas from under the ground in the province of Groningen. Conventional gas extraction has damaged her house to the extent that it will now have to be demolished. This has been an intensely traumatic experience for her family, especially for her kids, who were featured in a video, commissioned by GUE/NGL and the Party for the Animals, shown at the start of the presentation.
Heite saw her neighbourhood change beyond recognition since fracking begun. Heite’s neighbours have been forced to move out of their homes and houses in the area have suffered from cracks and damage to their foundations. Cultural heritage is at risk too and beams had to be added to listed buildings to maintain them standing.
The authorities are not willing to deal with the problem and have provided very little support to her family and to the families of thousands of others affected. The state is earning revenues from the gas extraction and this seems to take precedence over complaints of residents.
Mikel Otero of Fracking EZ provided a comparative example of the struggle in the Basque country on the same issue. The Spanish government has handed out permits to oil and gas companies and exploration begun four years ago. U.S. and Canadian companies have gained exploration permits. TTIP and CETA are expected to make easier for these companies to expand operations further and lower the already weak standards.
Fracking EZ, which means “No to Fracking” in the Basque language, was founded in November 2011 with focus on four key areas:
1 - Training, debates and information campaigns
2 - Alliance-building and networking
3 - Mass mobilisation
4 - Institutional campaigns
The organisation has gained mass popular support. Otero warned that the battleground for fracking is Europe-wide. If companies succeed in the Basque country, or in Groningen, fracking will become a reality in the rest of Europe.
• Session 3: Workers’ rights and housing policy
On the morning of day two, the group went to De Burcht, the first trade union house of the Netherlands, to hear from Ron Meyer, the Chair of the Socialist Party and the aldermen of the city of Amsterdam, Laurens Ivens and Arjan Vliegenthart. MEP Dennis de Jong chaired the sessions for the day.
Meyer gave an impassioned speech on the value of organising ordinary people to stand up for their rights in working-class neighbourhoods, in factories and in schools. It is often thought that these days, it is not possible anymore to organise certain groups of workers. However Meyer saw people changing their attitude to become leaders in their communities when empowered and given the tools. He first gave the example of the cleaners who had never been organised, and as a consequence were facing severe forms of exploitation. It was, however, possible to help them in organising themselves, claiming respect and proper labour conditions. For this, they organised the longest strike in the history of the Netherlands, but came out as the champions.
Meyer was also successful in mobilising young workers through the ´Young and United´ movement. This led to a partial abolishment of the minimum youth pay in the Netherlands, which was far below the pay for adults. The Socialist Party is now part of a coalition of organisations fighting for better healthcare through the creation of a national health care fund. This would put the current competition among insurance companies to a halt and would ensure accessibility of healthcare by abolishing the own risk for patients, currently €385 a year, and leading to many patients not asking for medication or treatment, since they cannot afford paying this amount. “Door knockers” in the Party go from door to door to talk to people about the common problems they face and give them a spark of hope. Meyer stressed that people-to-people organising is key for change to happen quoting Nelson Mandela as inspiration: "courage is not the absence of fear - it's inspiring others to move beyond it".
The two Socialist Party’s aldermen updated the group on their work on fighting poverty and on the pioneering social housing programme in Amsterdam. The number of inhabitants in Amsterdam continues to grow rapidly and as a result house prices are rising. If rents increase Amsterdam can no longer be a welcoming city for people with low income and refugees, betraying the city’s historic legacy as a welcoming progressive place for all. Social housing is therefore a recognised priority of the party.
In 2015, 8000 new apartments were built in the city. This allowed for the provision of better housing for the most disadvantaged and to reduce pressures on the housing market. Housing corporations allow for rental rates to be agreed and regulated, 57.3 percent of rents in Amsterdam are regulated and the Socialist Party plans to expand on this model.
• Session 4 - Rotterdam port tour and conversation with unions
The final leg of the journey was spent in Rotterdam with a visit to the city’s port, the largest in Europe, and in conversation with unionists representing workers there. Peter Willemse from the Dutch Customs Authority gave an overview of how port operations are run smoothly and how inspections and controls are in place to protect the market and citizens from potential threats (drugs, trade in endangered species, hazardous goods).
The Customs Authority adopts a risk management approach through use of intelligent data analysis and integrated border management. This allows for more selective inspections while not losing track of security of the broader movement of goods. The Authority is investing in technology to make inspections smarter and more efficient while at the same time building relationships with trusted traders.
The programme was set up in such a way that after the PR talks about the port and the customs facilities, the group also got to look behind the scenes and to see for itself that there is a dark side to recent developments in the ports.
Niek Stam, General Secretary of the Harbour Union, is concerned that at least 800 workers will lose their jobs to automation in the container industry. The port is under pressure from big businesses and competition from other ports to lower costs. All of this puts pressure on workers and makes work conditions more difficult while encouraging job cuts.
Stam argued that greater automation is not the solution as it will increase fixed costs. Stam argued for the use of a pool system of workers so jobs are kept while employers retain the needed flexibility. Their proposal shows that the trade unions are sensitive to competitive pressures faced by the port and that a solution can be found that preserves workers’ rights. Buzzwords like “innovation” and “optimisation” are an excuse to squeeze workers out of their jobs and to lower wages, according to Stam.
The group heard also from Edwin Atema who works within the Dutch trade union against exploitation of truck drivers, in particular, those from Central and Eastern Europe. Atema denounced Holdmayr, the Austrian transportation company, as well as other transportation companies for social dumping, the practice of bringing workers from Eastern Europe at lower wages and in degrading working conditions to compete in the local market. Workers from both countries are losers in the end.
He provided examples of poor work conditions on the roads of Europe, with workers going without hot food for days and working in 15 hour shifts. Truck drivers are under intense pressure on a daily basis and legislation is inadequate. He argued for better legislation at the EU level and against social dumping.