Hey, boss, leave those kids alone

In Portugal, let’s not turn our young people into a cheap alternative source of profit, like the Netherlands is doing

We all know that one of the great European heroes of the Portuguese centrist Iniciativa Liberal party is the Netherlands. Whenever Rui Rocha takes to the pulpit, no-one would be surprised if his first sentence would be an assertive “in the Netherlands, the free market works wonders”. Well, since I live in that very country, I’d like to talk about one of those marvels, one that escapes public scrutiny.

Like the United States, a country that projects many of its neoliberal policies into the government of Mark Rutte, former leader of the centre-right VVD, who is now stepping down because of the unsuccessful attempt to form the far-right government of Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV, the Netherlands is a country that prides itself on the success of its economy. However, despite the high wages (and taxes just as high as those in Portugal), behind this questionable success lies a swamp of economic abuse and subterfuge. One of these is the exploitation of children and young people, which is little talked about among the Dutch.

Child exploitation has always been a pillar of the capitalist spirit, as we know from the industrial revolution and the boom of the great English factories, where children were often used as cheap labour to carry out tasks that were costly to their health and well-being and where it was not uncommon for them to die accidentally. Today, youth exploitation has taken on a more woke guise.

In the Netherlands, teenagers from the age of 13 work mostly in supermarkets. Even in the country’s outlying towns, children can often be seen working in the Jumbo or Albert Heijn chains, two of the main Dutch supermarket brands. However, there are laws that prohibit employers from abusing the number of working hours, since these teens work part-time and under supervision.

Despite this, school is no obstacle to the big supermarket chains reinforcing their teams with cheap labour, as adult workers reject the low wages on offer (€16.95 per hour, just above the Dutch minimum wage: €13.27) So, the market compensates by subversively exploiting these young workers, claiming: ‘They like it here. They like being with their friends.’ This makes the situation even more perverse, as the desire to socialise is used to extract cheap labour. In Portugal, youth labour is only allowed after completing compulsory schooling and only from the age of 16.

In addition to this, there is also the idea of hierarchy and merit underlying this model, which is reinforced through the distribution of these workers’ salaries, since salaries rise according to the age of the teen. A worker between 13 and 15 earns €5.62 in these supermarkets, according to the website of one major supermarket (a little more than the minimum hourly wage for this age group, which is €3.98). However, from the age of 16 there is a reversal in this apparently fair logic. At 16, a young worker is paid €6.49 per hour, already performing jobs as a baker, butcher, cashier, etc. In other words, tasks that an adult could already do for €16.95 an hour, a little more than double what a youth makes with the same duties and workload. At a glance, it looks like a simple wage system based on hierarchy, but the problem is that the experience of a 16-year-old worker, when he or she becomes 21, is far greater than that of an adult worker with no experience, who has just entered the labour market. Yet they are paid the same. It could be said, then, that this system promotes the idea of a wage gerontocracy. Again, highly hierarchical.

What’s more, it’s not uncommon for these young people to adhere to the idea that ‘if you want something, you have to work to earn it’ exercised over them by their elders. Thus, during adolescence, a key formative age, young people internalise that work and capital accumulation is always associated with this meritocratic approach, when, as previously mentioned, wage distribution is anything but meritocratic. Above all, it’s anything but fair. This also promotes, as we see a lot in the Dutch, in general, a spirit of increasing individualism.

Also, there has been a reduction in the number of adult workers, both Dutch and migrant, in supermarkets, because the pay is low.  According to a source who has worked there, bosses tend to favour hiring younger workers, especially those aged 16 and over, because they pay them far less.

In addition to the exploitation in this resurgence of youth labour, one should keep in mind that this sets dangerous precedents for unscrupulous companies. We often see in US news how young people, especially those between 15 and 18, often suffer serious accidents at work, resulting in serious injuries and, in some cases, death, because a teen’s body frame is not suitable for some kinds of physical labour. In 2023, the US Department of Labour even condemned the rapid increase in youth labour after the death of yet another teenager. These fatal accidents occur mainly in slaughterhouses, construction work, sawmills, etc. But, according to an article in The Guardian, there has also been an increase in violations of labour laws protecting minors in the food sector, in this case in the US fast-food chain McDonald’s.

What does this mean for Portugal? It means that we should not turn our young people into a cheap alternative source of profit. The dignity of young people must be safeguarded by encouraging their continued education, critical thinking, active citizenship, so that in adulthood they are fully aware of their rights and can thus demand fair wages. Despite the glorious picture that centre-wing parties paint of the Netherlands from afar, up close you can see that the paint they use is quite cheap.

This article was originally published by Esquerda and has been translated and re-published with permission. You can read the original article here.

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