Residents of Bonaire, Saba, and St. Eustatius have been Dutch citizens since 2010. However, they do not have the same rights as European Dutch citizens. Almost half of BES islanders live in poverty because minimum wage and benefits fall far below the poverty line. The Senate, the House of Representatives, the Human Rights Institute, and the National Ombudsman have all asked to remedy this, but successive governments have ignored these calls. The Bonaire Consumer Association is therefore taking the state to court.
- Poverty is widespread in the Caribbean Netherlands: over 40 per cent of the inhabitants live below the poverty line, compared to 5 per cent in the European Netherlands. An important cause of this poverty is that minimum wages and benefits on Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba (the BES islands) are far too low.
- The BES islands have been 'special municipalities' of the Netherlands since 2010, but The Hague has done little to tackle poverty, ignoring urgent calls from the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, the National Ombudsman, and motions by members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
- The Bonaire consumer association Unkobon has had enough and is taking the state to court to enforce equal treatment of citizens in the European and Caribbean Netherlands.
- Follow the Money travelled to Bonaire with the support of the Special Journalistic Projects Fund to investigate the relationship between the Netherlands and its special municipalities.
- This is the first publication in this series.
Social worker ‘Albert’ drives his pick-up down the dirt road in a suburb of Kralendijk, the capital of Bonaire. He’s allowing Follow the Money to accompany him for the day because he thinks it is important to show journalists what poverty on Bonaire looks like. But he prefers not to give his real name. His colleagues got into trouble after talking to the media. Not everyone is happy when the Dutch press paints a different image of the island than that of a carefree tropical holiday resort.
‘Look,’ says Albert, gesturing at the colourful houses in the street. ‘There are so many houses that are nicely painted; they look great from the outside. But once you’re past the front door, you’ll notice how many problems there are.’ Over 20,000 people live on Bonaire, of whom more than 8000 live in poverty. Salaries, benefits, and allowances are many times lower than in the European Netherlands, while groceries on the island are on average 44 per cent more expensive.
‘This is emergency and crisis housing,’ the social worker says, stopping at a single-storey building, the walls painted a bright blue. He jumps out of the air conditioned cab of his pickup into the humid, warm air and heads for the eight small apartments. ‘If people have nowhere else to go, they can live here temporarily. There are a total of sixteen such residences on the island. They are always full.’
The door of one of the apartments is open; children are walking in and out. A young woman, who wishes to remain anonymous because of her vulnerable situation, walks to the doorway to greet Albert. ‘There’s six of us living here: my four children, my mother, and myself,’ she says. The family lives on 500 US dollars a month, which is the AOV benefit – the Caribbean version of the state pension allowance, which amounts to 1,261 euros in the European Netherlands – that grandmother receives.
A major problem for the BES islands is that, despite the insistence of the Senate and House of Representatives, the Human Rights Board, and the National Ombudsman, successive cabinets have failed to link the legal minimum wage and benefits to minimum living costs. In the European Netherlands, they are: since the introduction of the Social Assistance Act in 1965, the essential costs of living determine the level of benefits, allowances, and minimum wage.
This family can buy very little from the benefits it receives. Price levels on Bonaire are high: practically everything needs to be imported. The port of Kralendijk lacks capacity for large ships, so most goods are first transferred to smaller ships in the port of Curaçao. Limited supply capacity is coming under increasing pressure from population growth – 44 per cent since 2011 – and mass tourism. That drives prices up further. Producing energy and purifying drinking water is also expensive on the island, as is its distribution.
Soon, the family will have to leave their emergency home, says the woman resignedly. They have nowhere to go: on Bonaire, there are only 570 social housing units, while roughly 8000 people live in poverty. This family has been on the waiting list for over ten years. ‘The people with higher salaries get first choice because they can pay,’ Albert explains. ‘The housing association doesn’t want its houses occupied by people who can't pay, or who have to keep asking for reductions.’
He points to the social housing units across the street. ‘A place like that is already 460 dollars.’ Social assistance and pensions are around 650 dollars a month, minimum wage is 1045 dollars. ‘That leaves nothing, while they still have to pay for water and electricity, food, and school supplies.’ A house on the private market, which has overheated thanks to wealthy western immigrants, is something people on benefits definitely can’t afford.
Island Commissioner Nina den Heyer (Society and Health) says she is discouraged by the situation: ‘For ten years, we have had to repeat the same story about the lack of a social minimum. We are not allowed to engage in income policies ourselves: even if we have millions left in the budget, we cannot use it to supplement the benefits.’
The Dutch government acknowledges the problem, but wants to solve it by slowly improving the incomes of minimum wage earners. Bonaire consumer association Unkobon has had enough: led by founder and former chairman Wietze Koopman, the association wants to take the Dutch state to court in order to enforce a system such as exists in the European Netherlands, for all three BES islands, within the year.
‘The constitution and treaties prescribe equal treatment in equal cases. That should also apply to the Caribbean Netherlands’
Lawyer Channa Samkalden of the Amsterdam lawyers office Prakken d'Oliveira represents Unkobon: ‘The constitution and various human rights treaties stipulate that those who cannot provide for themselves are entitled to assistance from the government. In the European Netherlands, this is arranged in such a way that citizens are entitled to at least the social minimum. The constitution and treaties prescribe equal treatment in equal cases, so that should also apply to the Caribbean Netherlands.’ Unkobon and Samkalden have issued an ultimatum to the Minister for Poverty Policy, Carola Schouten (ChristenUnie): if she does not take concrete measures quickly, they will take the state to civil court for an ‘unlawful act’.
The BES islands have been part of the Netherlands since October 10th, 2010. On that day – ‘10-10’ in the vernacular – the Netherlands Antilles, until then a separate country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, ceased to exist.
Curaçao, Sint Maarten, and Aruba became three separate countries within the Dutch Kingdom on 10-10. Their relationships are laid down in the ‘Statute for the Kingdom of the Netherlands’. Willem-Alexander is king of all four countries. The three islands have their own democracy, with parliaments, but some matters are regulated centrally. Who can get a Dutch passport, for example, but also defence and border control. These matters are laid down in ‘State Acts’, which are mainly controlled by the Netherlands.
Bonaire, Saba, and St. Eustatius became ‘entities’ of the Netherlands on 10-10, comparable to municipalities. The BES islands do have separate legislation, which is established by the Dutch Senate and House of Representatives. The inhabitants have the Dutch nationality and are allowed to vote for the Senate and the House of Representatives.
After Bonaire, Saba, and St. Eustatius became administrative parts of the Netherlands in 2010, the realisation slowly dawned in The Hague that they were now responsible for islands where there was a lot of poverty. In 2012, the Ministry of Health estimated that about half of the Dutch Caribbean lived at or below the minimum wage level. As a result, people can not pay their bills, ‘and it happens as well that children are sent to school without having eaten,’ the report said.
In order not to impose the entirety of Dutch legislation on the islands in one fell swoop in 2010, separate laws were written, based on those of the Netherlands Antilles. The Netherlands also agreed to exercise ‘legislative restraint’ for five years: during that period, the Netherlands would introduce very limited new legislation for the islands.
Island Commissioner Den Heyer says: ‘Social Affairs used this as an excuse to be reticent in all areas. The right thing to do would have been to make an effort to improve social security, because the situation was just really bad.’ In 2011, The Audit Office noted that the Netherlands had agreed with the new parts of the country to bring social security to a level that is ‘acceptable to the Netherlands’. ‘What’s that level, then?’ Den Heyer wonders.
She criticises another argument from the government too: that higher benefits would have a pull effect on residents of surrounding Caribbean Islands. ‘The Dutch government itself is responsible for border security,’ says Den Heyer. ‘And to receive social assistance, you must have been registered on the island for five years. If they don’t want people to come to the islands to “take advantage” of the social provisions, you can build in conditions, just like with the social assistance.’
‘The government must treat its citizens equally. That didn’t happen, and there was no longer any valid explanation’
In 2014, in order to show The Hague the huge gap between income and expenditure, Unkobon and the Public Entity Bonaire, urged the National Institute for Budget Information (Nibud) to do a study. Again, the results were dire: the study found that on the BES islands a minimum wage employee with a full-time job earned 800 dollars, while residents, according to Nibud, needed 1470 dollars a month to survive.
In 2016, both the Senate and the House of Representatives submitted motions to establish a social minimum on the BES islands. Senator Ruard Ganzevoort (GroenLinks): ‘The government is responsible for its citizens and must treat them equally. That didn't happen, and there was no longer any valid explanation.’
‘What do you, as a government, do with motions that are inconvenient?’ Unkobon founder Koopman asks rhetorically. ‘You order a study.’ The results, which took two years to arrive, surprised no one, at this point: on Bonaire, by far the largest of the three BES islands, about 40 per cent of households turned out to have an income that was lower than the cost of living.
Dot on the horizon
Albert sees the consequences of this every day, he says, as he drives his car onto a small road lined with cacti on both sides. He points to a wooden hut built on dry grass. ‘A gentleman lives here without electricity, water, shower, or toilet. He poops outside in the bushes and pees in a bowl and then empties it outside. He is diabetic, so his feet ache. Still, he walks to the community centre every morning for some free food and drink.’
‘People have to live with parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts to be able to come up with the rent. That is asking for trouble’
A bit farther, a man passing on a bicycle stops by the car. Albert opens his window. The man hands him a piece of paper and, after a short exchange, continues cycling. ‘Look, it’s a payment reminder,’ says Albert. ‘A 450 dollar electricity bill. The deadline was a month ago. In a situation like this, I make a phone call to try and buy him some time, and make a payment plan. Hopefully, I will prevent this gentleman from being left without electricity.'
The high costs of living cause other problems, too, Albert explains. ‘People have to live with parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts to be able to come up with the rent. That is asking for trouble.' In 2015, a study from the Social Cultural Planning Bureau showed that the forced cohabitation of different generations on the BES islands leads to increases in tension, domestic violence, and incest.
The study requested by the Senate and House of Representatives was intended to determine a social minimum. But when research agency Regioplan announced the results in 2018, the calculated amount ‘could not be directly translated into a social minimum,’ the then State Secretaries Tamara van Ark (Social Affairs) and Raymond Knops (Kingdom Relations) responded. Instead, they would treat it as a ‘theoretical benchmark’ that would act as a ‘dot on the horizon, something to work towards through concrete steps’.
Nothing has changed
That dot on the horizon has no legal status, unlike the social minimum in the European Netherlands, and does not oblige the government to equalise salaries and benefits. Four years ago, the government did promise to close the gap in the long run, both by gradually increasing income, and lowering costs.
For example, the Minister of the Interior promised ‘to look into’ alternative options for lowering housing costs, producing more food locally, and greening the electricity supply, in order to reduce costs. Member of Parliament Ronald van Raak (SP) was immediately disappointed with the government’s approach, he said in a debate: ‘This House has asked for a social minimum, the Senate has asked for it, and the government must simply deliver.’ He submitted a second motion, which was voted down by the governing coalition.
Koopman of Unkobon: ‘So the attitude was: we are going to see whether we can reduce costs in the long run, but let those people live in poverty until then. It’s now four years later and nothing has changed.’
In 2021, the minimum wage was still more than 30 per cent lower (950 dollars) than what a single person needs to live (1363 dollars), and 80 per cent less than what a couple needs (1885 dollars), as is shown by the latest progress report, from 2021. The social benefit is even lower: it amounts to 522 dollars for an individual.
In the meantime, the promised reduction in the cost of living has not materialised. Electricity is expensive on Bonaire because 70 to 80 per cent of it is still generated using diesel. A plan to make the energy supply radically more sustainable, which the local Water and Energy Service Bonaire (WEB) sent to The Hague in 2019, could have significantly reduced energy costs for households. But the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, which stated in 2018 that it planned to establish a ‘reliable, sustainable and affordable energy supply’, ignored the subsidy application for the 40 million euros plan for a year and a half, and then rejected it.
Also in 2018, the government promised to focus on lowering food prices by stimulating agriculture on the islands. Apart from the 2019 statement that school greenhouses were being built on Bonaire with a ‘focus’ on local production of fruit and vegetables, no results are known. The government is also trying to make Bonaireans ‘price-conscious’ by publishing a price comparison between supermarkets, with Unkobon.
Meanwhile, costs have only increased. During the Covid-19 crisis, the islands experienced a slight deflation due to temporary subsidies that significantly reduced the costs of electricity, water, and internet. These ended on January 1st of this year, after which inflation started to rise again. In the second quarter of 2022, it was 9.4 per cent for Bonaire.
But for its ‘theoretical benchmark’ calculation, the government is now using figures that paint a far too favourable picture of reality. It does not use the realistic housing costs of 600 dollars, but assumes social rents of around 300 dollars. Due to the shortage of social housing, however, the vast majority of the poor simply have to pay market price.
Deputy Den Heyer: ‘Within the government of Bonaire, we regard the costs calculated by Regioplan, not the central government’s fictitious benchmark, as the subsistence minimum. Because the costs have not yet dropped at all.’
‘If the Senate and House of Representatives can’t convince the government to do it, then maybe the court can’
Even the subsistence minimum that the The Hague has adjusted downwards is still a long way off for the Caribbean Dutch living in poverty: the government is trying to reach that level in 2025. ‘The economic circumstances of that moment and the carrying capacity of the local economy must, however, be taken into account,’ the ministries of SZW and BZK informed Follow the Money. In the meantime, they added, the cabinet is ‘keeping its finger on the pulse’.
Six years after his motion to establish a social minimum, Senator Ganzevoort says he ‘can only conclude that there is a structural reluctance at the ministry to solve the problem. That’s why I think Unkobon’s move is going to help. If the Senate and House of Representatives can’t convince the government to do it, then maybe the court can,’ he tells Follow the Money.
‘When the BES islands joined the Netherlands, a new article was included in the constitution,’ Unkobon’s lawyer Samkalden explains. ‘A distinction may be made if the specific situation in the Caribbean Netherlands so requires. Unkobon, therefore, will not argue that exactly the same laws, rules and amounts should apply. However, if the Netherlands provides certain guarantees to its citizens and guarantees fundamental rights, these must apply to everyone. You can differentiate, but you cannot make an unlawful distinction.’
Aid worker Albert wants to see change. ‘I hope we can win, that Unkobon will win, so that the social minimum is equalised. But a case against the state will take years.’ Albert continues to use all his creativity to come up with solutions for people who cannot make ends meet. ‘But at some point, creativity runs out.’
In a joint response to this article, the Ministries of the Interior and Social Affairs and Employment acknowledge that the minimum wages and benefits in the Caribbean Netherlands are too low to meet the cost of living, which is ‘too high’.
The ministries do say that an equivalent level of facilities for the Caribbean Netherlands is the ‘top priority’ of the current government. They point out that new measures, such as compensation for high energy costs, also apply to the islands. They also note that it is their intention to introduce a form of unemployment benefit [available in the European Netherlands since 1952, ed.] during this cabinet term, plus a higher child benefit for children in need of extensive care. The government also says it will focus on cost reductions in the coming years. ‘For example in the areas of childcare, housing, and telecom.’
'This cabinet is structurally allocating an extra 30 million euros for the Caribbean Netherlands, a large part of which is intended to tackle poverty.' The government is therefore, ‘more than ever, paying attention to the Caribbean Netherlands’.
Solving the poverty problems mentioned is, however, a ‘joint task’, according to the ministries. ‘Not only the central government but also the local government and the social partners have a role to play. Local governments can, for example, provide targeted income support through minima schemes [arrangements whereby a local government can bear some costs for a citizen, ed.].’