Four out of five distribution centers breached health and safety regulations last year. This appears from a not yet published report from the Dutch labor inspectorate, which has been seen by NRC. The distribution centers have violated safety regulations, have not followed corona regulations (such as keeping a distance of one and a half meters) or the work was too heavy physically or mentally.
The Norwegian Working Environment Authority inspected two hundred distribution centers last year. Of these, 163 have not complied with the rules at least once. The Norwegian Working Environment Authority does not disclose which distribution centers are in question.
Twenty times the inspectorate suspended the work “because there was serious danger to the workers”. For example, orders are collected from tall racks. Sometimes these were not shielded, so that employees could fall from a height of nine metres. Of the distribution centers examined, 175 had not been checked before; they are randomly selected.
9,000 distribution centers
Since the start of the corona pandemic almost two and a half years ago, the Norwegian Working Environment Authority has checked distribution centers extra often. During corona, people ordered more often online, which increased the workload and the number of “serious accidents”, according to the Norwegian Working Environment Authority.
The number of distribution centers has grown significantly in recent decades. The Netherlands now has about 9,000, which together cover about 40 million square meters. Many employees come from Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Romania.
Working in a distribution center: ‘I feel like a monkey doing the same trick over and over again’
The Norwegian Working Environment Authority is concerned about the treatment of migrant workers in the distribution centres. The work, where the ‘physical load’ is high and the risk of being hit by a forklift is high, is mainly carried out by temporary workers, especially migrant workers, according to the Norwegian Working Environment Authority. They are often insufficiently aware of their rights in the Netherlands. “They are employed for short or uncertain periods and are often not proficient in the Dutch language,” writes the Norwegian Working Environment Authority. “Working migrants often complain late,” says a spokesman for the Norwegian Working Environment Authority.
According to Anita Böcker, lecturer in legal sociology and migration law at Radboud University Nijmegen, language and communication problems probably increase the risk of ‘accidents’ in the workplace. “Formally, migrant workers do not have fewer rights than Dutch employees,” says Böcker, “but HR departments in large distribution centers often let foreign workers work through temporary employment agencies and therefore pay less attention to them. They leave guidance on and outside the workplace to temporary agencies. “
The inspectorate identified 547 violations last year, of which 28 were very serious
Last year, the inspectorate identified 547 breaches, of which 28 were ‘very serious’ breaches. Ten times an inspector wrote a fine report, on the basis of which a fine can be imposed.
The control of distribution centers is based on previous inspections and investigations by the Norwegian Working Environment Authority. Already in 2020, it was clear that distribution centers are often unsafe, and during the corona pandemic, the centers were shown to disregard the corona rules in a big way. Staff felt unsafe as a result.
Philip Meijran, former coordinator of control in distribution centers, mentioned last year in NRC large staffing agencies are usually reliable. But, he said, if the centers can’t find enough people, they sometimes go to “shady” smaller agencies. According to him, such temporary agencies operate on the edge of the collective agreement and often also arrange housing for the labor migrant. It is a dangerous construction, the project manager believes, because if the migrant worker loses his job, he also loses his home.
Municipalities and provinces increasingly oppose the arrival of distribution centers. For example, Noord-Brabant tightened the rules this year: distribution centers can only be built on plots reserved for this purpose, to prevent the landscape from dozing off.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on August 3, 2022