Spotlight interview with Judith Ploegman, president of FNV-Jong

“The ITUC must maximise its potential”

“The ITUC must maximise its potential”

Brussels, 22 January 2007 (ITUC OnLine): Judith Ploegman, aged 30, is the president of FNV-Jong, the under 35s section of the Dutch trade union federation FNV (1). Among the youth section’s priorities are the fight against unemployment and racial discrimination in the Netherlands, as well as strengthening the involvement of young members in trade union leadership structures. Judith would also like the ITUC to be more aware of the power it has to strengthen international solidarity.

Are young people interested in trade unionism in Holland?

It’s difficult raise their interest. In 2004, there was a mass trade union demonstration about pensions. Some young people found it ridiculous, saying that trade unions defend the jobs of the past (such as lifelong jobs with the same employer), whilst most young people are hired on flexible contracts, change jobs regularly and enjoy fewer rights than older workers. The dispute was over pensions, the fact that increasing numbers of people are reaching retirement age and their pensions are being paid by young people with less rights and security than those receiving them. Some young people think that the trade unions are not changing enough, they feel that they need to be modernised, that more attention should be given to the new style of work relations between employers and employees. That was one of the reasons for creating FNV-Jong: young people didn’t feel represented by the union; they were of the opinion that it only represented people over 45.

What is the share of young members in the FNV?

Out of a total membership of 1.2 million, there are 235,000 under 35s. Many young people are choosing to be self employed, which is why this category of members is increasing the fastest. The FNV addresses the problems specific to them. The social security system, for example, essentially works for people with traditional work relations, and offers very little to self employed workers. We are trying to improve this situation. Our members enjoy a range of advantages in this area, such as reductions in their insurance contributions.

What type of activities does FNV-Jong organise?

We are carrying out several campaigns. One of our priorities is unemployment, which is much higher among young people than other workers. The main victims of youth unemployment are immigrants, particularly those from Arab countries or Turkey. Whilst the overall youth unemployment rate is 10.6%, for youths originating from non-industrialised countries it is as high as 40 to 45%. The difference is huge, and we want to do away with this injustice.

Another problem is traineeships: too few companies offer traineeships in certain sectors, whilst in others there are plenty but not enough candidates. There is also discrimination when it comes obtaining traineeships: if your name sounds “exotic”, you’ll have less chance of being accepted than if you have a Dutch name.

What can FNV-Jong do regarding traineeships?

We organise school visits, to inform young people about their rights, as well as the best way of finding a traineeship.
We are also members of the Social and Economic Council, composed of union representatives, employers’ representatives and independent experts who meet to advise the government. I am by far the youngest member of the Council: the average age of the councillors was 49 before I arrived. It is generally the government that asks for the Council’s opinion, but we can also advise it on subjects we consider important, although this is more rare. We took the initiative of advising the government about discrimination and the very high level of unemployment among young immigrants. We have also told trade union negotiators that for every group of 50 employees in a workplace, we want a traineeship to be offered. The fight against youth unemployment is essential. Many young people stop their education at the age of just 16 or 17 in the case of the least qualified, because they are not able to find a traineeship.

What do you think about the creation of the ITUC?

During the founding Congress, a delegate said to me that we are like a large multinational trade union, that we’re probably bigger than the biggest multinationals. So we have a lot of power, but we haven’t realised it yet. We are capable of a lot more than we are doing at the moment.

In the Netherlands, things are not too bad, our rights as trade unionists are quite well protected, we can join a union without being dismissed, etc. But when we hear the stories of trade unionists like the Colombians… they tell us they can only be sure that no one will be arrested if people from industrialised countries attended their meetings! There are very simple things we can do. We need to be aware of where the Dutch trade unions came from, of the hard battles they have fought to get us where we are today. It’s only natural that we should do the same everywhere in the world. It’s our duty to fight to ensure that economic growth always goes hand-in-hand with social development. No one benefits from economic growth alone, on the contrary.

We need to realise the power we hold if we want to change things. Trade unions also have to realise that they need to train young people from the very outset, give them responsibilities so they can prepare themselves and take over when they are ready… not simply because they’ve reached a certain age. If they have the qualities needed to take on such and such a post, their age should be irrelevant. There shouldn’t be a distinction between young trade unionists and trade unionists in general. They should be integrated.

What practical steps can young trade unionists from industrialised countries take to ensure greater international solidarity?

I was given an opportunity to visit a trade union cooperation project in Morocco, a project that was part of a global campaign to get children into school (2). Many young Moroccans live in Holland, where they suffer from many types of discrimination. We chose Morocco because we wanted to set up a project that combined international solidarity with what is happening in our country. We wanted people in the Netherlands to know about the extent of child labour in Morocco, about the poverty of this country that is so close to Europe and the reasons why Moroccans come to Holland. We visited schools in Fez, where there is a pilot project aimed at reducing the number of children dropping out of school. Children often go to school until the age of 8 or 9, when they receive a job offer, which unemployed parents are often tempted by and encourage their children to drop out of school. The project informs teachers about children’s rights, about ways of communicating with the parents and explaining to them how important it is for the country and the children themselves that they go to school. The project is being backed by a large Moroccan teachers’ union, in partnership with the FNV teachers’ union and a French teachers’ union. Another of its aims is to increase school attendance (from 5 to 7 days) through a range of social programs.

What is FNV Jong’s role in this project?

We were there to observe, then share our experiences in the Netherlands. We are now trying to translate our observations into actions at home. We know, for example, a boy in Morocco who had one of his hands cut off by a machine while working at a shoe factory. We want to offer him a prosthesis, which his family could never afford. To do this we’re going to organise an event with DJs and comedians, famous Dutch people of Morocco origin. It’s also a way of raising awareness about the situation in Morocco. We’re hoping to raise more money than anticipated, so that we can help other children in the same situation. We’re also hoping that other individual initiatives will emerge: many people in the Netherlands say they are interested in the situation in Morocco, and we would like to facilitate their actions, during student exchanges, for example.

How did you get involved in the trade union movement?

I was already very much involved in the students’ union when I was studying. I set up a training institute for student union leaders, among other things because I felt that young people are not taken seriously enough. One of the reasons for this is that they are not professional enough to be taken seriously. I then contacted the FNV, because it was trying to do the same thing: to take young people seriously and professionalise its action with them. One of my friends was working for the FNV. He told me about the ideas behind the FNV-Jong section. I presented myself at the elections for the presidency of the section and was elected.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

Note: To learn more about the activities of FNV-Jong, please consult the website

(1) Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging
(2) “Stop child labour – and school is the best place to work”,

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