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Thai restaurant made to pay back wages

Dirk Kloosterboer

31 December 2005 – A Thai restaurant located near the Rembrandtplein recently paid 1,200 euro in back wages to a former employee. Activists had pressurised the owner to pay up. Searchweb’s Jan Müter explains how this came about.

Twenty-five year old A., born in Burma and raised in Bangladesh, worked during six months for a number of restaurants managed by R. In Müter’s words, he put in ‘exotically long hours’: a major part of this period he worked six to seven days per week, from noon to two or three in the morning.

At first A. was paid 25 euro per day, which was raised to 30 euro as he became a skilled cook. At some point, this was changed to 1,000 euro per month. Even these wages – far below what a worker is formally entitled to – were apparently too high in the eyes of the employer, who stopped paying. As a result, A. missed out on 1,200 euro.

Through the ASKV refugee organisation, A. got into contact with Jan Müter, who had worked with restaurant employees before. With members of the Amsterdam Anarchist Group (AGA) and Flexmens.org, he set out a strategy.

BENGALI
On 17 November some fifteen activists went to the restaurant to confront the owner. At first he was frightened, and then he came up with an incoherent story.

“Every couple of sentences, he contradicted himself”, says Müter. “First he did not know A., and then he said he had given him shelter. Next he threatened to call the police. He started pushing the buttons of his cell phone and said something in Bengali”.

A man came over from another restaurant. “That was something of a surprise, for I recognised this man. I had been giving him advice for quite some time when he was having a conflict with this very same restaurant owner. Apparently, this conflict had been resolved”.

Eventually the activists left empty-handed, intending to contact the owner again at a later time. “This was not necessary, for his brother phoned A. the next day. He could get 500 euro, and the remaining 700 euro a few weeks later”. The entire amount has been paid by now.

EXIT STRATEGY
Meanwhile, the group had also contacted a lawyer. “As a matter of fact, he was quite keen on starting a civil suit. This would have cost the owner loads of money; therefore this would have been an effective means to put pressure on him”.

As it stands, the owner has gotten away cheaply, since the employee was formally entitled to much more money than he got. Müter: “A. would rather cut a deal. Legal proceedings might even have had consequences for his stay in the Netherlands”.

“Our method can for now only be used as an ‘exit strategy’, that is, to make it as expensive as possible for an employer to fire an employee”. A. now has a job at another Thai restaurant. This restaurant is run by a man from Surinam, who does not know R.

Müter’s involvement in the catering industry can be traced back to the arrival of a number of youth from Spain and Italy, who became active members of the AGA. They wanted to introduce the syndicalist trade union tradition that they knew from their home country in the Amsterdam catering industry, where they worked. Müter supported them.

EXPLOITATIVE CONTRACTS
“Bosses in the catering industry often suggest that they are the ones who are in control, for example by threatening violence. We wanted to explore this terrain, see if we could build some sort of power. We walked in at shady bosses to confront them. A couple of times we were successful, a couple of times we failed”.

During his research, Müter found that the catering industry has shadowy ownership structures, and that the people who run the restaurants are themselves often bound by exploitative contracts. In turn, they exploit their workers.

In February 2005, Flexmens organised a forum on precarious work. The working method developed in the catering sector was brought back to life, and a number of students joined the group. Among the group members, there are some who are also trade union activists.

Müter: “Maybe that is the most important achievement: there is now a group of people whom we can fall back on. We can quickly mobilise people who understand what is going on”. Knowledge of the initiative is now spreading through word-of-mouth.

MCDONALD’S
“I expect that we will be receiving more telephone calls from workers who are in trouble. But workers who are in such a position will not easily take action; they will only do so if they are really stuck”.

In the past, Müter worked with FNV Horecabond, the largest union in the catering industry. He suggested that the union open a workers’ centre in the neighbourhood of the Rembrandtplein and the Leidseplein.

“Employees now meet at the McDonald’s. The union could offer them a place where they can get together, exchange experiences, hear from each other which employers are hiring. If the union would run such a centre as a bar or a coffee house, then it would not have to cost much”.

“If only to offer them a place where they can have their meals. Many employees in the catering industry have no room where they can eat. They have their meals sitting at the stairs, conditions are really dismal.”

Abuses in the catering industry can be reported to the AGA, aga@squat.net. The AGA can also be visited: every Saturday from 14.00 to 18.00 hrs at the Eerste Schinkelstraat 14-16.

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