The Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament during a debate on Wednesday was again highly critical of the Dutch government for not having implemented a guaranteed minimum income to eradicate the increasing poverty in Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba.
Members of the Second Chamber’s Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations, who attended the debate with caretaker Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Wouter Koolmees, caretaker State Secretary of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Raymond Knops and caretaker State Secretary of Economic Affairs and Climate Mona Keijzer, showed impatience and demanded action.
Several Members of Parliament (MPs) cited the words voiced by National Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen earlier this week to “stop with the fabrications, nonsense and baloney” and to end poverty in the Caribbean Netherlands by ensuring that everyone has enough to live above the poverty line.
MP Jorien Wuite of the Democratic Party D66 and other MPs put pressure on the minister and the two state secretaries to solve the issue for once and for all. “Do we keep fiddling around and wait for the next alarming report? Or do we put things in high gear?”
Wuite observed that there was a reason for inviting a minister and two state secretaries to Wednesday’s debate. “For 11 years already, the islands have depended on multiple ministries in The Hague for achieving a guaranteed minimum income. I understand it is a complex matter, but 11 years is way too long. We don’t support this snail’s pace.”
Wuite asked the minister and state secretaries what their explanation would be if a Caribbean Netherlands resident were to ask why after 11 years there was still no subsistence minimum for persons living on an island that is part of the Netherlands. “Do I not count or are we forgotten?” people ask.
“Why do thousands of Dutch citizens, in the words of the National Ombudsman, have too little to live on, but just enough not to die?” asked Wuite. She noted that while things had progressed in the area of healthcare and education on the islands, there was very little progress in the area of social security, where things had come to a standstill and even deteriorated.
MP Don Ceder of the Christian Union (CU) mentioned the many social differences between the Netherlands and the Caribbean Netherlands, whereby people on the islands are worse off, also economically. “Naturally, there should be attention for the regional economic differences. But a person in the Caribbean Netherlands pays a lot for Internet, groceries, energy and telecom. Childcare, the minimum wage and social security are not the same.”
Ceder said the situation whereby some 30 per cent of the population on the three islands lives in poverty was “shameful” and “unacceptable.” “How can we, including the Second Chamber, have allowed this to happen? What can be fixed now needs to be done immediately, and what has been planned for the longer term needs to happen sooner,” he said.
MP Laura Bromet of the green left party GroenLinks pointed out that children were going hungry on the islands. She said it was inconceivable that people within the Dutch kingdom had to manage with an amount far less than what was actually required to cover their basic needs.
Bromet questioned what she called the “cosmetic adaptations” of the poverty threshold by Minister Koolmees and said that he was not calculating the real cost of living on the islands. “We are condemning people to poverty and that is totally unacceptable. As long as there is poverty, children on the islands have no prospects. It is time for action,” she said.
MPs Wuite and Attje Kuiken of the Labour Party PvdA pointed out that 30 per cent, or more than 4,000 people in the Caribbean Netherlands were living under the poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic has made things even worse for this group, said Kuiken. “Efforts to reduce the cost of living were only partially successful. People simply can’t make ends meet,” she said.
Kuiken criticised the Dutch government for not acting forcefully to solve this pressing issue. “It is not a matter of not being able to. It is a matter of not wanting to. A new government must take care of this.” She asked for a clear commitment with a concrete timeframe and said that it was not enough for the minister to say that this would be taken care of in the future without knowing exactly when this would happen.
MP Sylvana Simons drew a comparison to a small municipality in the Netherlands. “Would we accept the same situation in the Netherlands? The situation in the Caribbean Netherlands is not only inhuman, but also unjust. An increasing number of people live in structural poverty on islands that are a part of the Netherlands.”
MP Aukje de Vries of the liberal democratic VVD party said that in her party’s opinion, it was better to look at lowering the cost of living and making the islands and their people more resilient and self-supporting. “Employment and economic development are the best way to eradicate poverty.” She called on the Dutch government to act with more speed to structurally lower the cost of utilities.
MP Joba van den Berg of the Christian Democratic Party CDA said that solidarity with the islands, that she considered to be “next of kin,” came first. She said that while meaningful steps had been set to raise the income and to lower costs, there was still much poverty. “Eradicating poverty is a priority. The reduction of costs can help with that.”
Van den Berg asked for structural solutions versus the current short-term subsidies. She also enquired about constructing “tiny houses,” a popular phenomenon in the Netherlands, to help ease the shortage of social housing on the islands. The minister and state secretaries could not be moved during the three-hour debate to make a concrete pledge to execute the wish of the Second Chamber to immediately implement a guaranteed minimum income.
The standard, repeated answer of the members of government was: this is a decision that is up to the next Dutch government. The current government has a caretaker’s status and cannot take decisions that have financial implications.
“I am a caretaker minister. I cannot take that decision,” said Koolmees. He said that he did not deny that there was poverty, but that a fast intervention to realise a subsistence minimum by raising the income substantially would be “unwise” as it could have a detrimental effect on the local economy. The minister’s response angered MP Simons. “We are talking about 20,000 people, of whom many have two jobs. What [argument — Ed.] can there be against arranging this? Why are we being told after 11 years that this is being done in small steps? Why do people have to wait so long for a decent income? I am frustrated and angry,” she said.
The Daily Herald.