Dutch city puts its jobless back to work

by Nicolas Delaunay

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands, Oct 6, 2012 (AFP) - For years The Netherlands has had the reputation of being a generous welfare state, but in some cities like Rotterdam this is changing: the jobless are now put to work to earn their keep.

In one of the city's old neighbourhoods, Jose da Cruz is cleaning the street as part of an innovative scheme that demands eight hours of cleaning a week in return for a wage from his new "boss" -- the Rotterdam municipality.

In exchange for picking up the rubbish, the unemployed like Da Cruz -- who have reached the end of obligatory Dutch state-funded unemployment benefits -- get benefits from the municipality and are trained to go job-hunting.

"If you need the help, the community will help -- but you have to do something in return," Rotterdam's deputy mayor Marco Florijn told AFP.

Called "Werk Loont" (work pays), the programme lasts 15 weeks and those who enter it spend 20 hours a week doing homework and taking job-hunting classes at Werk Loont's offices, situated a few blocks from Rotterdam's famous port in the city's southeast, in addition to cleaning the streets.

The unmarried earn 830 euros (around $1,000) a month, while those with families get 1,200 euros. In return, Da Cruz and others have to put in the hours to help to keep the city clean.

But the 30-year-old former construction worker is not complaining.

Da Cruz recently lost his job as the economic crisis continued to bite and had run out of compulsory unemployment benefits paid by the Dutch state.

"I'm not ashamed of doing this work -- it gives me the feeling that I am doing something and helps me keep up the momentum," he told AFP.

"At first I was reluctant, of course," added Maurice Hannart, 43, a former tram driver, adding: "but hey, it's better than being at home and lying in bed."

"Here, we are active in a group, we continue to see people," Hannart told AFP while attending a job-hunting class.

The programme serves a dual purpose.

Apart from keeping the unemployed busy, it also weeds out cheaters who claimed unemployment benefits from Rotterdam while moonlighting in second undeclared jobs on the black market.

"Our programme takes up too much time for people to moonlight -- so they either give it up or find a real job," deputy mayor Florijn said.

The rules are clear: being late or absent without an excuse or deliberately failing a job interview will first result in a 30 percent cut in benefits and eventually in being booted out.

Reducing Rotterdam's deficit

The Werk Loont programme has also hugely benefited city coffers in Rotterdam, where unemployment is at 12 percent -- nearly double the national figure.

Faced with rising costs to pay the benefits, the southern Dutch city in 2011 decided on budget-slashing austerity measures which included toughening the benefits regime.

The results were almost immediate, with the city's deficit dropping from 91 million euros last year to a projected figure of just over 20 million euros in 2012.

So far this year around 3,100 people have passed through the Werk Loont programme.

Of those, more than 40 percent are no longer receiving aid from the city, either because they landed a new job (around 600), gave up on claiming benefits or simply had the benefits withdrawn.

The Dutch welfare state is indeed changing and seeking to deal with unemployment in a more pragmatic way, said Paul de Beer, an employment expert at the University of Amsterdam.

"It's changing from being purely protective to now include citizens' duties," De Beer told AFP.

"But in any case, you can put as much pressure as you want on citizens but if you're not also creating jobs, it won't be of much use," De Beer said.