Seeing employment as an opportunity to flourish in Rotterdam

Chris Messenger, who manages Scottish Drug Forum’s Addiction Worker Training Project, recently took part in an information sharing and study visit to The Netherlands.  Chris’ visit was undertaken as part of Employability Public Social Partnership Elevate Glasgow in partnership with the Dutch Foundation of Innovation Welfare 2 Work and was funded by Erasmus+, the European Union programme for education, training, youth and sport.

This blog is an adapted and edited version – the full version is available to view here.


Day One

Successful in securing a place on this sought-after venture, I travelled with two colleagues from Phoenix  Futures and  the Scottish  Recovery  Consortium, to the Netherlands. There I learned how employability for disadvantaged groups is delivered and how employers and service providers engage with people in recovery.

First stop was Van Dalen Veilingkisten in the Rotterdam region of Papendrecht – a young woodcraft product company.

The industrial site of Papendrecht is the perfect home to a fantastic workshop which boasts a small team of craftsmen.

The team supports marginalised young people creating learning opportunities working within a highly skilled team.

I watched as young men created intricate woodwork pieces.  Producing quality goods for high end commercial clients at home and abroad, each young person was getting something of real worth and value for their onward development – increasing their social capital through work and learning hands-on skills for further employment.

Swiftly on to a second visit, we travelled to Dordrecht where we found Opnieuw & Co.  This literally translates to “Again & Co”.

Creating employment, and developing skills for people throughout the departments of its business, Opniew & Co collects used-products on a monumental scale.  Up-cycling and pricing competitively, the company not only creates social employment, but increases public spending capacity by providing an affordable alternative to new products.

Company Director Marcel van Gogh described to us a business model that thrives on social employment of marginalised groups through five locations in the Netherlands.

We saw people with multiple employment barriers – physical and mental health conditions; long-term unemployment; criminal convictions; and people with drug and alcohol problems, all developing skills in areas such as tailoring, engineering, pricing, valuing, crafting, and repairing.

In addition, a highly skilled front of house staff team with the very same barriers look after the scores of customers coming through its doors.

With 60 volunteers supporting their work, more than 450 employees work at Opnieuw & Co, of which 150 are employed, with others working temporarily through wage subsidy schemes and a view to building skills towards securing further employment.

That evening, we travelled to Hotspot Hutspot in Rotterdam, where for €8 Euros we had an incredible three course meal.

The Hotspot Hutspot is a beautiful place in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the Rotterdam estates, and a safe place for children to come together to learn and grow.

The Hutspot gives opportunities to people in recovery – here we met the Kitchen Manager Jacob, who shared with us his experience of a successful high-end culinary career, heroin addiction, and subsequent recovery.  One of the Elevate volunteers, this being his third of a five-week work placement, who was exhausted from a busy shift and the heat of the kitchen, joined us for some fresh pear juice and shared his experience of living and working in Rotterdam.


Day Two

Pitched to us as a “traditional” health and care centre for people who use alcohol and drugs, day two of the study visit commenced with a morning at Bouman GGZ/ Antes Groep in Rotterdam.

It was here that the work ethic of our hosts really stood out.  Against the backdrop of a simply beautiful therapeutic, structured day care community, the themes of treatment – autonomy and work – were discussed.  The latter theme, it soon became apparent, is a critical indeed absolute, necessary, and integral part of treatment with Bouman and throughout The Netherlands.

Based in supported work experience within the treatment centre, clients were able to create structure through work and employability. In this model, treatment is work and work is treatment – a little like the therapeutic communities we see in the United Kingdom.

In addition to work on-site, employability and CPD opportunities were also provided to clients who are encouraged and supported to find work in their local communities.   Within a sophisticated joined-up approach – as the specialist in addiction care and recovery in the Rotterdam area, the Drechtsteden and the South Holland Islands, Bouman intricately involves healthcare, forensic care, and criminal justice colleagues in the treatment and reintegration of clients in to Dutch society, through work.

Leaving Bouman, we met with the five participants on the Elevate Study programme for Volunteers, who shared their experiences of working in a variety of placement settings in the Rotterdam region.  I was hugely impressed with the appetite of the volunteers for learning, and just how much they had thrust themselves in to living and working in Holland.

We went to the Pauluskerk (St. Paul Church) in central Rotterdam.  Formerly an unofficial supervised injecting facility; the Church’s Minister had attracted media attention in providing a safe place for people to use drugs in the basement of the Church.  With the emergence of two Government-endorsed consumption facilities, Pauluskerk has returned to its original roots – supporting the homeless people of Rotterdam, with a specific focus on the refugee community.

The ethos of Pauluskerk is to “help where there is no helper”, and we were greeted with the words “the good overcomes evil” in giant letters as we walked in to the fresh, purpose-built Church and day care facility, which reflects the bravery of architecture throughout Rotterdam.

Activities in Pauluskerk are aimed at strengthening people’s social capital – providing advice to asylum seekers, social work, therapeutic interventions, space for reflection, creative activities and various language courses.

There is a bicycle workshop in which people accessing the service are trained – a great skill to develop in the Netherlands where bicycles saturate the roads and have right of way.  Access to a GP, a dentist and a hairdresser is also on-site, not to mention 24 spaces for people who need ‘bed, bath and bread’.


Day Three

The final day of our study visit exposed us to two very different places of work.  The first was Promen – an employer which specialises in providing supported and sheltered work placements for disabled people.

Our hosts from the department responsible for “Development of Talents and People” set the scene by describing how Dutch law has seen a shift requiring Municipalities to think more entrepreneurially in employability interventions. The Dutch have also moved to place a degree of pressure on people receiving welfare via ‘social participation’.  Essentially, to receive welfare, Dutch residents must ‘contribute’ to society through work in some way – the nature of this work being adapted depending on need.

Promen is owned by seven Municipalities in the Netherlands, and offers labour in the context of social employment, and participation. Adopting a socially conscious model, Promen is profitable.

The organisation is made up of several departments, and the model is fluid – creating opportunities for people to work through and across departments in Production, Cleaning, Greening, and Outplacements.  1,500 people work for Promen – all have disabilities or for another reason have had issues with employment (including addiction).

Staff are supported by job coaches who work for Promen and are recruited from various regions. Promen offers subsidised external placements – people receiving employment in schools, restaurants, and local authorities with an assessment of their capacity for the position calculating the level of subsidy.

A tour of the production site at Promen, and ad-hoc discussions with workers revealed a skilled, busy, happy workforce who took great pride in their work.

Our final visit was to a children’s farm – De Molenwei in Rotterdam. Here they have linked a classroom and a school garden, where primary schools can benefit from nature and environmental education.

This probably felt like the most relaxed working environment, and as an animal lover, I could appreciate the value of students attending here to care for the animals while learning about work.

Pieter described to me how this was a special placement, creating opportunities for people who could develop softer skills, before being exposed to a more intensive work placement.  That said, hard work did take place!  We met Anna, one of the Elevate work placement Volunteers who gave us a spirited and passionate tour.  With an excellent knowledge base and bags of confidence, the value of this type of work for Anna, and indeed any trainee in this type of work, was clear.  The very physical labour aspect was also, it seemed, very tiring.



The study visit was fantastic. We were exposed to a range of unique employment options for marginalised groups – employment options that work on a massive scale and create opportunities for onward development.

Work ethic and entrepreneurialism were key themes – the latter is a word I rarely, if ever hear day to day in my own work, however it was a solid theme throughout the three days of visits.  My sense is that the success of the Dutch employment model comes through building on the principles that exist within the culture – the strengths of work and entrepreneurialism.  It is not something that can simply be replicated, as it is our strengths that we must look to in Scotland. We must also look to further our work in creating meaningful employment for marginalised groups, which is currently being achieved through the work of the PSP and our own organisations.

In turn, I was able to discuss with colleagues the value of people with lived experience of addiction recovery, contributing towards service delivery in drug and alcohol projects.  I sensed that in Holland, the Dutch were more cautious around this aspect of employability.