The contractor | Chaos Schiphol: The Flexi Worker’s Sweet Revenge

Labour market

Schiphol today. ‘Across the board’ there is too little staff: the flex workers who have long seen their terms of employment deteriorate have risen.

Yvonne Hofs (de Volkskrant)

May 4, 2022

Long queues at Schiphol on Sunday. The lack of security personnel for hand luggage and passenger control was the main reason last weekend. Photo: Arie Kievit / de Volkskrant.

The long queues at Schiphol are the manifestation of a new phenomenon in the labor market. Poorly paid flex workers finally dare to lift the middle finger towards their stingy employers. For years, low-skilled workers had to powerlessly accept that employers would erode their working conditions. Airlines and airports are increasingly outsourcing work to subcontractors who are in fierce competition with each other. Consumers want a cheap flight, and that’s at the expense of the workers at the bottom of the ladder: Suitcase porters and security guards.

In the second weekend of the May holidays, Schiphol was again very busy. Dutch holidaymakers stood in line for hours on Saturday and Sunday for the tracking gates and checking their hand luggage. There were not enough staff to handle the flow of passengers, they write Volkskrant.

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Schiphol is struggling ‘across the board’ with a severe staff shortage, an airport spokesman admits. ‘It ranges from security guards, military police, the crew at the check-in counters, baggage handling to parking guards.’ The largest user of Schiphol, the airline KLM, is diligently looking for a hundred new apron employees (people who load and unload planes and push them to the runway).

Schiphol cannot do much about the shortage of staff at KLM and other airlines, but the airport is responsible for deploying sufficient security staff. Schiphol has five hundred vacancies with a desired staff of five thousand. The lack of security personnel to perform hand luggage and passenger checks was the main reason for the long queues this weekend.

‘Of course we had anticipated. We’ve done our very best recently to recruit enough staff, but we just have not been able to. “

Spokesman Schiphol

ANVR: ‘Schiphol should have foreseen better’

Frank Oostdam, director of the travel umbrella organization ANVR, accuses Schiphol of ‘poor planning’. ‘The travel agencies already saw that this amount came in January. The number of bookings for the May holidays then increased rapidly. You can book a holiday by plane months in advance, so Schiphol should have foreseen it better. The airport spokesman responds with: ‘Of course we had anticipated. We’ve been doing our best lately to recruit enough staff, but we just have not been able to. ‘ The spokeswoman points to the tight labor market as the reason. ‘There is also a huge shortage of staff in other industries: the restaurant industry, construction, healthcare, you name it.’

Federal Director Herrie Hoogenboom thinks this is a weak excuse. ‘Schiphol invokes force majeure, but why force majeure? You better start paying. Then the work automatically becomes attractive again. ‘ The FNV director represents the security guards who are so deficient. He saw the current staff shortage ‘coming miles’ as there has been ‘anger and dissatisfaction’ among security staff for a long time.

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‘Security officers at Schiphol fall under the same agreement as people guarding an office, but the work at an airport is much more difficult. It’s hectic. You often have to deal with travelers who freak out and get angry, and you often have to stand in the crowd for hours. ‘ Most Schiphol guards work for subcontractors who are not aware of specific schedule requirements, such as coordinating working hours in primary school and childcare. Many security guards have gone in the past year. ‘As a result, the workload of the bereaved has increased. This in turn leads to additional sick leave, which further increases the workload for the others. It creates a negative spiral ‘, says Hoogenboom.

Increasing work pressure, growing staff shortage

The same vicious circle of ever-increasing work pressure combined with growing staff shortages is emerging among platform workers and baggage handlers. The chaos in the first weekend of the May holidays was caused by a wildcat strike by 150 KLM platform employees. The baggage carriers stopped working for six hours on April 23 in protest of the planned outsourcing of ground staff to an external action company. The strikers fear dismissals and a deterioration in their working conditions.

‘I think it’s ultimately a matter of payment’

Even the director of an airline shows understanding for such complaints. Steven van der Heijden, Chairman of the Board of Schiphol Customer Corendon: ‘I think it’s ultimately a matter of payment. Wage increases are inevitable in the long run, otherwise the airlines will not be able to retain staff. Pushing suitcases out of a team is bad for your back and knees. In a labor market with many alternatives, people will no longer want that job. ‘

Van der Heijden says Corendon, a provider of holiday flights to the sun, hires an action company that pays its employees relatively well. ‘It resulted in us being able to hire enough people for the spring and summer peak. It is also a pity for us that other companies at Schiphol do not have their cases in order. ‘

Greatly improved agreement for ground staff

The shift in the balance of power between airlines and their staff recently resulted in a much improved agreement for ground staff. The unions have reached an agreement with six subcontractors who handle luggage and passenger handling for several airlines. The average hourly wage will increase over the next three years from 11.80 to 14 euros per hour. From next year, employees will also receive a fixed irregularity supplement for night work and work on public holidays.

Even if Schiphol and the airlines were to raise wages sharply, the staff shortage would not be resolved immediately.

The Schiphol rapporteur does not comment on the question of whether the airport is prepared to also raise the salaries of security guards to remedy the shortage of staff in that department. “The security companies have a separate agreement, which has already been entered into,” she says in an e-mail.

‘You can not just open a can of security guards’

Even if Schiphol and the airlines were to raise wages sharply, the staff shortage would not be resolved immediately. “You can not just open a can of security guards,” says Corendon CEO Van der Heijden. Before a new security guard can get started, he or she must first undergo a background check to obtain the required Certificate of Good Conduct. That process takes at least six weeks. After that, the upcoming security guard will undergo internal training in crowd control and handling of aggressive travelers.

There is also a shortage of staff at other airports in Europe, including Zaventem (Brussels) and Heathrow (London). The British media have in recent weeks been very aware of the long waits at London Airport. As for Schiphol, Van der Heijden and Oostdam hold on to their hearts for the summer. From mid-July, there will be an additional five to six peak weekends at Schiphol. There is no indication that the staff problems are a thing of the past. Infrastructure Minister Mark Harbers is not reassured either. “This cannot be resolved one-two-three,” he told the ANP Sunday afternoon. “I keep my finger on the pulse.”

The pressured flex job’s revenge is sweet. The aviation industry has been reaping the benefits of flexibility for years, but is now experiencing its disadvantages for the first time. There was almost no flight during the corona pandemic. Airlines got rid of their flexible shell. Now that half of the Netherlands suddenly wants to go on a flying holiday again, these former Schiphol employees are greatly missed.

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