Note: Annie, Julia and John are fictitious names, used in the article to protect the sources of +31mag.nl.
At the beginning they are start-ups, companies moved by the “digital dream”, based on creativity and (sometimes) good ideas. For some, the luckiest ones, come the investors: the small independent company grows, features in the stock exchange, opens offices everywhere therefore charming young workers. Few formalities, a “playful” work, assignments and procedures renamed following marketing and communication manuals.
Then suddenly strategies change: companies start cutting jobs and the dreams of success, for many, becomes a nightmare. This is the story of many enterprises. Also of Travelbird, an “ex-startup” moved into the lucrative market of online holiday packages, currently operating in 17 European countries with a turnover of millions of euros. But inside Travelbird, last month, took place the most drastic reduction of personnel from the birth of the company.
Interns, Traniees, Editors, marketing experts: all practically sacked during a plenary meeting held in Keizersgracht 281, the prestigious headquarters of the company, in which the “ex-startup” announced the closure of five “kleine landen”: Italy, Portugal, Spain, Hungary and Poland.
But first things first.
Happily and precarious ever after
Travelbird sells itself like a pro, making the company look like a Disney fairy tale: smiling employees; open workspaces, lots of supercomputers and flags of every country. And again a brand new MacBook (lease-lend) for workers, rides on the Travel-boat, branded bicycles, free beers on Fridays (Booking wannabe); indoor café with “bartender at your service” and “healthy” canteen for just 20€ a month.
Employees become “Birdies”, living in the company according to the precepts written in the “Bird Bible”, surrounded by the mantra of entrepreneurship and self-empowerment; by “ispirational” slogans and tons of communicative make-up used as retention tool for the personnel. An happy worker, after all, is a more productive one.
In the amazing Travelbird-land, however, last October something began to creak. According to the company, the reason is not linked to fiscal storms but to an internal reorganization that according to the Dutch press have caused the dismissal of a hundred people.
“No. A ripple effect has led to more layoffs”, John, marketing expert at Travelbird, says, “with just one day notice.” Most of them were expats, with fixed-term contracts: “Some of those who held positions of responsibility were dismissed the same day, with months of paid salary; others, for instance interns or trainees, were not confirmed after probation period, which was accidentally expiring just as Travelbird announced the layoffs”, continue John and Julia, two among those who negotiated a settlement agreement.
“That was pretty much like a blackmail. In January we will be finally dismissed, but until then we continue to go to the office, practically pretending to work”, John explains, “Not to mention the human side. I have worked in London, and even there I was treated way better than this: I was sacked from one day to the other, very low payroll increase after almost two years, no productivity bonus; not for us, at least. And now the troubles to find a new job: we are being recognize as those sacked by Travelbird, and when others know you are unemployed, the job interview become a race to the bottom, you know? It really sucks.”
All those workers contracts have been terminated in different ways, although for Travelbird those are all cases of non-renewal. “That day we were like believers during a Mass, people waiting for their turn to go into the confessional, which was indeed the room where the HR were interviewing us,” Annie says, “they told us, one by one, what would have been our fate. Around people were terrified, some were crying and others deeply stressed”.
Yet in The Netherlands every company with more than 50 employees is required by law to have an internal union. “Yes there is a Works Council”, tells Annie, “but I never received any help nor support from it.”
And now, after all the layoffs? “Now the confusion is great. Websites for conuntris where service has been discontinued are still running; you can even buy holiday packages for summer 2016, but we do not know what might happen. We also don’t know who is in charge of the customer service, because they were the first ones to be dismissed”, says Julia with a bitter smile, “But at the same time we continue to publish offers, sending newsletters to customers in order to promote both the website and the packages”.
“The law recently changed. Since July 1, if you have a fixed-term contract you can be fired without intervention of UWV [autonomous administrative authority, commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment to implement employee insurances n.d.r]. The company has just to notify you one month in advance. At the same time the sum of fixed-term contracts (up to three) may not exceed the duration of 24 months”, says Fadime Kiliç, attorney specialized in employment and labor law, who deals with cases involving expats on a daily basis.
By law, in short, you can not be precarious for more than two years in a row. And for John, Annie and Julia, the sum of their respective renewals was exactly 23 months: “Many of us have been given contracts making our permanence at Travelbird just one month before the threshold of the two years. When we asked why to the Human Resources”, explains Annie, “we were assured that it was a standard procedure of Travelbird, preceding the permanent contract.”
Which in fact did not happen. However, until a few days before the layoffs the company had continued to hire: “Mainly interns, including people who had moved to Amsterdam exactly for the job at Travelbird, despite being fired after a short while” Annie explains again.
There is nothing illegal in what the company did, but the hard times for Travelbird employees, at least according to what it has been told to + 31mag.nl, raises the doubt that the recent reform of the Dutch labor market (came into force on July 1) had played a determining role in the harsh decision taken by the company.
“We deliberately choose young people because they are ambitious, fresh, dynamic. And flexible, of course”, stated last May the CEO and founder of Travelbird, Symen Jansma. That is a legitimate policy but the costs of corporate reorganizations (as happened last October) tend to fall on the shoulders of those with temporary contracts, sometimes particularly on those of foreign origins.
“We have plenty of cases”, Fadime confirms, “And it is a legislative gap, because it is very difficult to prove in Court that a company acted irresponsibly”. How to prove that on the verge of the permanent contract, an employee is being replaced just for salary reasons? Yet we have to take into account that in The Netherlands “foreign workers often struggle to have all the information they need from the companies; and that they often don’t know the language of the country where they work, not even being aware of their rights”, the expert concludes.
So that happened to 100 and more “Birdies”: flew in the rich, ambitious and dynamic Amsterdam, and then fired (let them call it a “non-renewal”) with equal lightness. All members of the Precariat, in short; an outlaw word in the magical world of millionaire startups, the new paradises lost for many of the so called high skilled migrants.
The Works Council of Travelbird, asked by + 31mag.nl, refused to comment “for the confidentiality and the sensitivity” of the subject, confirming however that “the Works Council has been informed and involved in every step of the way and has been asked for advise before any decisions were made”. A case perhaps quite unique, that of an union involved in the sacking of its colleagues.