“Cleaners deserve more respect”

Published on: 22 December 2021

Pragmatic and cost conscious, allergic to red tape and formalism: Tarik Uçar fights for every pension euro in his role as executive director of the cleaning industry pension fund. And for more social decency: “People often don’t even greet cleaners.”

 

Tarik Uçar is actually more than just a pension fund director, he is also an employer in the cleaning industry. For three hours every week, he has a maid clean his house. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, he continued to pay her as normal. Later, he heard that he was the only one of her employers to do so. “She lost most of her income virtually overnight, putting her in acute financial problems. What possesses these people not to continue to pay her?” he says outraged.


The lack of social decency and the collective disdain for people in the cleaning industry, that’s what he intends to help change. As well as ensure a good pension for the members of the pension fund he is a director of, the pension fund for the cleaning and window cleaning industry (BPF Schoonmaak). Among the pension fund’s 529,000 (former) members and pensioners, there are many migrants, a vulnerable group in society. “They are only vulnerable financially, they are otherwise actually very strong people,” says Uçar, who is of Turkish descent himself, to add some nuance.

 

First of all, how has the Covid-19 crisis affected the cleaning industry?
“Hospitals and schools need extra cleaners, while hotels, bars, and restaurants need fewer. Cleaners in the hospitality industry working on an on-call contract then have zero income and, consequently, no contributions toward their retirement pension either. For employers in the cleaning business who serve industries such as hospitality, it’s also sink or swim. That’s why it’s so good that the government has stepped in, because the industry cannot do it on its own. Looking at my own household help, self-employed cleaners are also bound to struggle.


The vaccination rate among the migrant population is below the average in the Netherlands.
“Vaccination issues are not within our remit as a pension fund. Research shows, however, that our members are generally hit hard by Covid-19. Over the past year, a considerably larger number of cleaners died than in pre-pandemic years. Excess mortality in the cleaning industry is higher than in the rest of the Netherlands.”
Should cleaners be able to retire earlier than at age 67?
“Occupational disability levels are high and grave in this industry, with rates of between 80 and 100 percent. Cleaning simply is very strenuous work. It is, therefore, an illusion to think that you can do this job full time from age 20 to age 67. In fact, you cannot expect full-time cleaners to work more than forty years.”

 

But then you would have to pay them a retirement pension over more years...
“At present, many cleaners become unfit for work well before they reach retirement age, and that also costs money. And their life expectancy is shorter. As a society, we should increase sustainable employability in strenuous professions such as cleaning, so that more people can work through to retirement age. You could, for example, cut the hours that older cleaners work, increase training, and work smarter by using new technology. One example of the latter are the sensors that can be used in cleaning to tell us whether a toilet needs cleaning, and if so, when. Robotization can also help make cleaning work less strenuous.”

What do you see as the biggest challenges in pensions for cleaners?
“Wages in the cleaning industry are low. People often have to stack several part-time contracts to get by. Low wages also means low retirement pensions. As a pension fund, we try to offer people a certain quality of life in retirement and to prevent them from falling by the wayside along the way.”


How do you go about that?
“We try to keep our costs down as much as possible. One of our core values is affordability. Every year, we have talks with APG about whether the pension administration fees can come down further. By working together to see if we can do things smarter, simpler, and therefore more economically. We’re not dealing with invisible money here, but with the pensions of cleaners, and they need every single euro they can get. For these people, I always want to go the extra mile.”


Would that be different if yours were a pension fund for, let’s say, medical specialists?
“Then I would feel as if what I do mattered slightly less. The other day, I heard a cleaner say that at C&A you can get pants for 10 euros. And so, those 10 euros make the difference between new pants or no new pants. That’s what makes my work valuable. Each euro of each retirement pension we pay matters. So, we can do without frills.”


Such as?
“The pension world is rather good at launching all kinds of campaigns to raise awareness among members or harvest email addresses. A year later, however, everyone is still as unaware of their retirement pension and the email addresses are outdated, but they did spend a great deal of money on it. We consider that pointless and simply don’t do any of that. Another thing is that some funds have already gone into overdrive in informing members about the new pension system. We don’t do that either. We are going to wait until the new pension agreement has fully taken shape, otherwise you’re only communicating uncertainty and that will only create confusion.”

“People aren’t focused on later, they’re focused on now”

But isn’t communication actually very important for this industry, given the large number of low-educated workers and migrants?
“We have 170 nationalities working in the cleaning industry, command of the Dutch language is often not good. My mother has been living here for 47 years, but her Dutch is poor, although she would say otherwise. A letter about her retirement pension would be completely incomprehensible to her. So yes, communication is a challenge in this industry. We communicate at A2 level, very low threshold. Besides, their pension is not something that’s on our target group’s mind. In fact, research has shown that the word ‘brick' triggers more brain activity than the word ‘pension’. I once held a pension consultation at a mosque in Rotterdam where people could ask me anything about pensions. Most questions were not about pensions at all, but about occupational disability legislation, child support, and health insurance. People aren’t focused on later, they’re focused on now.”


How do you then still get through to your target group?
“We believe that digital communication is the best way, because you can then also use visuals. The idea is to link that to translation apps in the near future. In principle, we communicate in Dutch only, but for an animated video about pension reduction we had subtitles made in six languages. Such an important message simply has to get across properly. Digital communications are cheaper, more sustainable, and more effective. This ties in with our second core value: understandability. We do, however, need our members’ email addresses to be able to communicate digitally. This is why we, as the only pension fund in the Netherlands, have made it mandatory for employers to share these email addresses with us.

 

Isn’t that prohibited under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)? After all, you would then be able to link income data to persons.
“In all honesty, we did have that discussion with legal experts to assess whether we are allowed to do this under the GDPR. As a pension fund, we think we are. We also have our members’ social security numbers and income data because that is deemed essential data for pension payments. Why then would we not be allowed to ask for email addresses as well? We consider those just as essential in keeping pensions affordable and understandable for our members. Another example of the formalism we face after the introduction of the GDPR: our service desk is no longer allowed to give out information about payment amounts, on account of the verification of whether the caller is actually the member in question. But the very reason people call us is to find out these amounts. You have to always ask yourself: who are we here to serve? Our members and not the GDPR.”


Do people in the pension industry think you’re difficult?
Laughingly: “I recently talked to a new employee at APG. On his first day, he already heard people talking about me and say, ‘He’s a valued, but very critical client of ours.’ I take that as a great compliment, yes.”

 

A rebel against the rules?
“Whenever members find themselves in a situation of hardship, we pull out all the stops. But sometimes rules stand in the way of our changing their situation. That’s something that occupies my mind, I must admit. We have also sent a letter to the relevant government minister about regulations around bankruptcies. From the moment a company is declared bankrupt, the Dutch employee insurance agency (UWV) takes over payment of the pension premiums for the companies’ workers. The thing is, however, that these workers have to apply for that themselves, we cannot do it for them. Seven in ten cleaners never do that, while they do pay taxes toward this safety net for workers. Isn’t that just ridiculous? It’s completely unacceptable as far as we are concerned. We are taking real action to get this changed.”

 

How do you, as a pension fund, deal with cleaning companies that do not pay their pension premiums?
“Without mercy, both in collecting outstanding payments and in applying for bankruptcy. We also hold directors personally liable. That’s necessary because we don’t want any cowboys in the market. And it works: since everyone is aware of our tough approach, pension premiums are generally paid properly.”

About the new pension system... What choices are you making as the board of the pension fund for the cleaning industry?
“We want to switch to the new system as soon as possible, because there is a real threat that we are going to have to cut pensions under the current rules. After we switch to the new system, our members can finally see their pensions increase. Other than that, we have made a conscious choice not to adopt the flexible premium agreement that requires members to make their own pension choices. Call it paternalistic, but we believe you shouldn't bother people with that. You can centralize those choices and make them as an institution. This is why we have chosen the solidarity-based premium scheme (this differs from the flexible premium agreement in the fact that more choices are made collectively – by the fund and the social partners – and risks are borne collectively, eds.). This solidarity-based system is also a good fit with the culture in the cleaning industry: if something happens to one person, the other is ready to help.”

 

The solidarity buffer to absorb financial setbacks comes from investments, among other sources. That means you need returns on your investments, but society also calls for sustainability...
“Sustainable investment does not necessarily have to go at the expense of yields. We owe it to society to put sustainability on the agenda. Even for a small fund like ours, which has ‘only’ seven billion euros in equity. Our third core value is ‘engagement’. This is reflected in the three spearheads for our asset management efforts: labor standards, human rights, and the climate. We do not buy government bonds in countries where human rights or labor standards are not respected.”

 

The Dutch general pension fund for public-sector workers (ABP) has decided to stop investing in fossil fuels? How about you?
“This is not on the table for us yet. I do think, however, that ABP has sent a powerful message. We are still looking into what will have the biggest impact. If you divest from fossil fuels, you cannot exert influence as an investor anymore either. And, if I’m honest, we are under less pressure from society than ABP.”

“The white middle class in this country talks the diversity talk, but no one walks the walk."

Social equality is another social theme. What is your stance on that?
“Among the 170 nationalities in the industry, there are also highly educated Syrians, who are only allowed to do cleaning work in the Netherlands. The white middle class in this country talks the diversity talk, but no one walks the walk. We want to change that. We expect our partners, such as APG, to embrace diversity. And we want to set the tone for that on our own board. We have three directors with a migration background. Anita is of Surinamese descent, Semih and I are of Turkish heritage. And our intern Laila is a young Moroccan woman. Our suitability plan requires the board to have members with a migration background. That same provision should also be included in the Pensions Code. I’m also in favor of a quota for people with a migration background, because it won’t sort itself out.”


As an advisor to VCP, the federation of trade unions for professionals, you’re dealing with people who earn a lot more than cleaners do. How does that feel, wearing two such different hats?
“Whichever hat I’m wearing, I know who I am and I speak my mind. Whether I’m dealing with managers, police officers, pilots, or cleaners. Their interests are essentially the same. All workers want a good pension that is adjusted for cost of living. All workers want their spouse taken good care of after they die. The question is, however, if that should be a lifelong pension, given that the breadwinner model has now made way for double-income households. And most workers want a collective safety net for people who end up in financial difficulties. The solidarity idea is still very much alive, albeit slightly less so than in the past.”

 

Does that lead to more people falling by the wayside?
"Yes. When my mother was left without an income and didn’t know that there was such a thing as ‘welfare’, she was lucky that she could fall back on the Turkish community in our area. People brought us food, so that we wouldn’t starve. When the sh** hits the fan, you need an arm around your shoulder. Solidarity is important, just like respect. Society often looks down on cleaners: it’s work that we don’t want to do ourselves and we don’t want to see others doing it either. Cleaners are expected to their work invisibly. It always strikes me how rude people are to cleaners: they often don’t even greet them. While cleaners themselves do rightfully take pride in their work. Society would do well to show some decency and gratitude in return.”

Who is Tarik Uçar?
Tarik Uçar was born in the town of Hengelo in the eastern part of the Netherlands in 1976. His father had come to the Netherlands as a guest worker in the late 1960s. Tarik’s mother and two older brothers joined his father later. Briefly after Tarik was born, his parents got divorced. The family lived in poverty at the time, because his mother did not know what authorities to turn to for support. Later, too, the family still struggled to make ends meet.

 

Young Tarik went to law school and subsequently joined the Pension and Welfare Council, which provides financial support to the victims of World War II and their surviving dependents. His next jobs were at the insurance company Zwitserleven and the Pensions Federation. After that, he became an advisor to the hospitality and catering industry pension fund and held supervisory roles at the pension funds for hairdressers and the drinks industry. In 2019, he became an executive director of the cleaning industry pension fund (BPF Schoonmaak). Alongside this role, he is a pensions consultant at VCP, the federation of trade unions for professionals, and supervisory officer at the pension fund for millers.