How free is movement in the EU?

“We entered a dark hallway, descended the stairs and opened the door,” Tim Versnel, Vice-Mayor of Rotterdam recalls. “It was like a scene from some kind of dystopian movie: huge piles of rubbish, the smell of stale beer – then we recognised the shape of a mattress. This was a place where someone, a person, actually lived.”

This was one of Versnel’s first outings as vice mayor, together with the night patrol of the local police. He was investigating a complex issue which many European cities are dealing with.

One of the cornerstones of European integration is that citizens of any EU country have the right to freedom of movement within the Schengen Zone of the EU. This tempts many who are faced with poor economic prospects to seek work across the bloc in hope of a better life.

This group can be vulnerable to exploitation, sometimes ending up in very poor living conditions with difficult and hazardous jobs. Often, they may not register in their new country, meaning that they do not have access to the rights and protections they should have, according to EU law.

A fairer system

On this outing, and throughout his tenure as Vice-Mayor of Rotterdam, Versnel has been working to create a fairer system, one that allows these people to escape exploitation and find the new life that they have been seeking.

This is actual people’s lives that we are seeing
— Tim Versnel
Tim Versnel, Vice-Mayor of Rotterdam
Tim Versnel, Vice-Mayor of Rotterdam discusses mobile EU citizens – photo by Rhalda Jansen

“This is actual people’s lives that we are seeing,” Versnel emphasises, “And it’s happening right now in my city, in my country, just as in your cities and in our EU. This is how migrant workers can end up when they’ve lost their value to their employer or agency: jobless, homeless and feeling utterly worthless.”

Rotterdam’s action programme starts helping such people by gathering data to understand their numbers and locations, ensuring that they are included in society and that they can engage positively with the communities in which they live.

“Achieving this is quite complex,” explains Karin Wolters, Rotterdam’s Programme Manager for Mobile EU Citizens, “First, we need to increase the visibility of the local government.” The city does this by opening public information points where people can learn about their rights and duties through a number of languages, as well as give feedback to the city on their experiences.

“In Rotterdam we see that many EU labour migrants initially expect to stay here for only a few months, but in practice live here longer, even permanently. For this group, language and integration are essential.” Wolters says. Rotterdam customises services like language learning for this group by offering them outside of normal working hours.

When a person has become homeless, we try to help them get back to work
— Karin Wolters

The city also wants to increase social support. “We’re providing better guidance and access to local services in a variety of languages to help people improve their self-reliance and participation in society,” Wolters explains. “When a person has become homeless, we try to help them get back to work. If they prefer to go back to their home country, we coordinate with organisations there so that there is a system of support waiting.”

Welcome in Rotterdam

In the diverse area of Tarwewijk, one of the city’s New in Rotterdam information points announces itself with a large sign over a plate glass front window. Walking by, one can peer in to see children’s drawings adorning the walls and friendly volunteers with steam rising from warm cups of tea.

“This centre really helped our family when we first arrived in Rotterdam,” one volunteer confides, “now that my husband makes enough money to support us, I like to give my free time to helping others.” She says she finds the work rewarding: “I can see how relieved people are when they come for help and I can welcome them in Polish, and I remember how I felt the same.”

Sites like this are not only valuable for newcomers. These information points are vital for Rotterdam to better understand the needs of its diverse inhabitants and in building relationships of trust through which the city can help people to integrate. Clients who access these information points can also be important sources of information about exploitative landlords and employers.

Collaborating to tackle crime

We have to tackle crime and exploitation
— Karin Wolters

“We have to tackle crime and exploitation,” Wolters says. One of the main tools that the city has for this is unannounced inspections by the Dutch Labour Authority: “We work with the Dutch Labour Authority to ensure everyone is being employed under fair conditions.” The city also trains inspectors and supervisors in ‘signal recognition’ – that is, being able to detect when someone is in need of help, even if they don’t have the courage to say so explicitly.

Karen Wolters discusses integration
Karen Wolters discusses integration – photo by Rhalda Jansen

The range of actions in the city is now to expand to a new domain: good employment practice. “We want to strengthen our collaboration with the private sector, with employers and agencies, trade associations and housing providers. We can’t achieve any of this in a vacuum, and we’re working closely with our national government, non-profits and other local organisations,” Wolters stresses.

We can’t achieve any of this in a vacuum
— Karin Wolters

Rotterdam is also working with other cities and the province to develop a long-term structural approach to eradicate the issues that people moving there from other parts of the EU may face.

To make sure that people can avail of their rights, Rotterdam also tries to increase the number of people officially registered in the city. “One way we do this is providing residents with information on how to register when we inspect reports of overcrowded accommodation,” says Wolters, “another will be to reach them with information by collaborating with their employers.”

In relation to overcrowded accommodation, the city is tightening legislation and upping checks to make sure that vulnerable people are not being exploited by unscrupulous landlords.

An explosion and a new law

One peaceful day in Rotterdam a building suddenly exploded. “The whole façade was torn off,” recalls Elsmarieke Mensink of the City of Rotterdam, “and two people were seriously injured.” Almost like a theatrical production, the façade that fell from the building revealed a normally hidden world of exploitation.

The building was being renovated, and the twelve Eastern-European labourers who were being employed there illegally by a Swiss company were also living on the building site. “The explosion resulted from a gas leak, ignited when one of the people living there tried to use an aerosol spray and a lighter to kill one of the cockroaches infesting their accommodation,” Mensink says.

This is emblematic of the kind of issue that Rotterdam is trying to tackle with its policies against labour and housing exploitation of migrants and European citizens who travel between EU countries (‘Mobile EU citizens’ is the technical parlance).

As in this case, “the labour contracts and the housing contracts of vulnerable people are often intertwined,” Mensink explains. That doesn’t mean that the person is usually living in their workplace, as these unfortunate people were. What it does mean is if the person loses their job, they can automatically lose their housing and end up on the street.

“These people are approached in places like Poland or Bulgaria by recruiters who promise them the opportunity of a good job and housing all organised in Rotterdam,” says Mensink, “but the contract is in a language they don’t understand. They don’t realise that when they arrive they will be in very low quality housing, often packed with way too many people.”

Clients rarely anticipate the harsh and squalid conditions that they are expected to live and work in upon arrival. However, because their job and accommodation are bound together, they are afraid to speak up about poor conditions in either in case they lose both and end up penniless on the street.

We can’t allow these practices to continue
— Tim Versnel

“Of course, not every EU migrant ends up in the gutter – thankfully not,” confirms Vice-Mayor Versnel, “But they are often treated badly: unpaid overtime, forced to work despite being ill, paying far too much rent for a mould and rat-infested small room. We can’t allow these practices to continue.”

Even though Versnel celebrates the free movement of people and goods around Europe, he insists that “it should never be at the expense of social inclusion and human dignity.”

After years of lobbying by cities like Rotterdam, the Dutch government is bringing in some new laws to tackle these issues. One, the ‘law of good letting,’ will force the separation of labour and housing contracts.

Another, scheduled for 2025, will force recruitment agencies to secure a permit and produce bank guarantee of €100,000 for each company they deal with, preventing these companies from declaring bankruptcy and leaving people with weeks or more of unpaid wages.

Nevertheless, despite the city’s best efforts and the incoming legislation, it is notoriously difficult to deal with these practices. Rotterdam has fined agencies up to €360,000 for illegal and unsafe labour practices, only to find the same perpetrators engaged in the same activities a matter of mere weeks later.

A representative of Veldwerk addresses gathered cities
Veldwerk, an agency that works with the city to get vulnerable people into jobs – photo by Rhalda Jansen

When agencies are shut down, the same bad actors can simply open new ones with different names, and many of these agencies operate from headquarters in other EU countries where the legislation of Rotterdam or the Netherlands cannot control them.

For this reason, the city must work with a wide variety of partners. “Our office collaborates with many other departments of the local and national government,” Mensink says, “but also NGOs, the police, the National Labour Authority, and the Tax Authority.”

With these partners, they conduct random, unannounced inspections of accommodation and work sites, liaise with large local employers, provide counselling and legal assistance to tenants and employers, and more.

The power imbalance between the exploited and the exploiters, however, is a radical one, and even with all of these partners, it is difficult to overcome. A systemic and lasting solution will require better social rights and provisions for people moving from other EU countries, better awareness among these communities of the rights and services available to them, and a surer footing in the local context.

“We estimate that only one-third of all EU-mobile workers in our country are currently registered,” Versnel elucidates, “That means that only one-third of these people receive the social rights and legal protection that are normal in our country. The majority therefore is at risk of being treated as second-class citizens.”

The majority is at risk of being treated as second-class citizens
— Tim Versnel

For Versnel, this situation is unacceptable, which is why he is pushing for a new local, national and European approach. “Even though mobile EU workers may only be here temporarily, their contribution is vital,” he insists – “They are a part of team Rotterdam, just like we all are.”

A hierarchy of rights

“There is a hierarchy of rights by default within the European Union,” explains Lina Vosyliute, Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. Citizens of the nation in which they live are protected by the national constitution; mobile EU citizens are protected by EU rights and directives; and then people arriving from outside the EU are covered by other EU directives and other types of international agreement.

There is a hierarchy of rights by default within the European Union
— Lina Vosyliute

“Cities have to supply services and to abide by laws on non-discrimination, so it is challenging for them to approach this three-tier system,” Vosyliute says. If a mobile EU citizen registers without becoming economically active, residency status can be withdrawn, leaving them in limbo. “This policy has an especially negative implication for vulnerable mobile EU citizens, such as Roma people,” Vosyliute explains.

Rotterdam would like to see a Europe-wide system that allows for mobile EU citizens to access rights and provisions regardless of their employment status. This, paradoxically, would make it easier for the city to help them integrate into the labour force, as well as the wider local community.

At the same time, the city and the national government are working hard to empower people with access to information. To do this, they augment the work of the city’s information points with other means of communication, including a website that provides information on the city and its services in a number of languages.

“We have to make sure that people are well prepared for the move to Rotterdam so that they can succeed once they arrive,” says Paul van der Weijden, Communications Advisor to the City of Rotterdam.

We let people know about it in any place you can think of
— Paul van der Weijden

Keeping the site up to date demands a lot of resources. Translation should not be automated as it’s important that the information is very clear and accurate. “We react to feedback on the site from newcomers,” van der Weijden says, “and we let people know about it in any place you can think of – schools, supermarkets, churches, doctors, everywhere.”

Rotterdam’s website complements a national website for newcomers that covers everything from registration to housing, social services etc. Creating a website may seem like a small undertaking, but in reality it requires a lot of staff to maintain, and broad collaboration across the local and national governments.

However, the importance of such a resource cannot be overstated. “Previously, information was very fragmented and only available in Dutch and English,” van der Weijden explains, “which meant that for newcomers, it was a nightmare to untangle.”

Across Europe

Rotterdam is not the only city seeking to empower people arriving from other EU countries and prevent their exploitation. Last month, cities from all around Europe travelled to Rotterdam with Eurocities, using financial support from the European Commission’s EaSI grant to discover more about the local approach and share insights from their own experience.

Attending cities agreed that the predicament of mobile EU citizens, especially vulnerable ones, is a question for the whole European community. On the one hand, there is public messaging that promotes and applauds mobility within the EU, and the right of free movement as a cornerstone of European integration.

People seated around a table
Eurocities member cities discuss strategies in Rotterdam- photo by Rhalda Jansen

On the other hand, countries are not taking responsibility for providing services to mobile EU citizens. While cities can try to improve the situation by using tax money to employ partners that can help mobile EU citizens, the cities are forbidden from directly providing services themselves.

A perplexing situation exists where asylum seekers must suffer fewer rights and greater precarity than mobile EU citizens, and yet can be offered services which are not available to the latter.

Meanwhile, issues with housing supply and huge amounts of accommodation being bought up by investment funds have led to existing precarities and inequalities being exacerbated.

The consensus among cities that travelled with Eurocities to Rotterdam to workshop these issues was this: The unequal and incoherent treatment of people who have the bravery to try and start a new life in a new country, whether refugee, Ukrainian refugee, migrant, or mobile EU citizen, must urgently be addressed, and our behaviour as Europeans be brought in line with the stated values of the European Union.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer