O expat, where art thou?

Crossroads looks at Maastricht's most endangered species

Expatriate community, posted September 15th, 2004


Expats in Maastricht


Meeting an expat in Maastricht might not be difficult with international companies such as Mercedes Benz and Vodafone present. However, finding official information on local expatriates is a true quest. Despite numerous attempts, we failed to obtain detailed information about local expats from Maastricht’s Municipality, the Chamber of Commerce or the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). However, we remain interested and will gladly publish any official data received at a later moment.


“Municipalities have little interest in this group”, says Isamar van Hilten, who runs the agency ‘Partners in Relocation’. She helps expats nationwide to complete the necessary Dutch paperwork and assists them in finding schools and housing.


Expats may also stay invisible because many do not register as residents to avoid paying taxes in The Netherlands. But according to tax advisor Arjan Enneman, that does not happen on a large scale. “These are mainly UK expats we are talking about. They commute to the UK so often that in their own opinion they do not really live in The Netherlands, so they feel there is no need to pay taxes here”.


There is, however, another reason for expats to avoid registration. Mr Enneman: “It is easier. They have no right to benefits, so why bother to fill out the forms and register?” He points out that all expats should register to obtain a social security number, and they should pay tax. “If the tax administration finds out they did not, they risk a fine.


Where are they from?


While detailed information on expats in Maastricht remains scarce, there are statistics which reveal more about the “invisible” group on a national scale. In over 60 per cent of the cases, expats come from another EU or EFTA country. Since 2001 there has been a decline in foreign workers due to the worsening economic situation. A total of 19,000 EU expats came to The Netherlands in 2003. UK nationals top the list, followed by Germans. Approximately 10 to 15 per cent of the expats come from Australia, Canada, Japan, the USA or New Zealand. Last year, less than 3,000 immigrants (not all expats) came from the new EU countries, the largest group by far being Polish.


Same looks, different people


The transition to a new culture does not always go as smoothly as expected. Some expats feel they do not get enough support from their employers when they relocate.

International Expatriate Benefits, part of US insurance company GNA, held a poll among 700 expats working for 200 multinationals worldwide. Only one out of five expats judged their preparation sufficient while 57 per cent did not get any intercultural training.


Mrs Van Hilten gives ‘culture shock seminars’ to expatriates to help avoid potential problems. “Expats can be easily misled by the fact that The Netherlands is a western country, with western-looking citizens and culture. If they move to an Asian country they expect something different, but coming here they think: ‘The Dutch are the same as us’, which is not the case”, she says. “One of our big clients is a company in Maastricht. Expats there are used to working longer hours but their Dutch colleagues are not. They feel the foreigners are over-zealous.”


Language skills


Another integration problem is the language. According to the CIGNA poll, 40 per cent of the expats do not receive any language lessons. Tax advisor Mr Enneman is familiar with this problem.


Many expats come to him because they have problems filling out the Dutch tax forms, which are often not translated into English. “This also occurs at insurance companies or banks”, he says. “Many times the forms are available in Turkish for example, but not in English.”


Passing through


If expats face problems adjusting to the Dutch culture, they might find comfort in the thought that most of them will not stay here long. Many of them are just ‘passing through’ the Netherlands. According to the CBS, about two out of three guest workers leave the country within five years of arriving. The CIGNA poll shows that within five years, 33 per cent of the expats expect to be doing another foreign job for the same company, 25 per cent expect to return to their native country, and 30 per cent expect to work for another firm, most likely abroad.


Mr Enneman notices that many of his clients leave the country after only two or three years. “A lot of expats are employed at the top of the job market, where people switch positions more. If they can get a better offer elsewhere, they leave. Expats have already immigrated before, so it is less of a hurdle for them to move again.”


However, there are exceptions to this rule. The Eurocontrol Centre at the Maastricht-Aachen Airport, for example, has employees from 27 European countries, primarily from the Benelux, Germany and the UK. “A little over half of our staff is foreign, and most of them stay in the Netherlands until retirement because air control is a very specific job”, says spokesman Fred Konnemann.


Attracting expats


Maastricht does not act as a strong magnet for expats. Mrs Van Hilten, says that if Maastricht wants to become a national expats centre, “the province should do more to attract international companies.” However, some well-educated foreigners seem to prefer Maastricht over other cities. The number of foreigners working at Maastricht University for example has grown over the last five years, reaching 12,8 per cent of its staff, or 328 people.


Future prospects


Does the increase of expatriates working at Maastricht University signify a growing trend? Much of the expatriates’ presence in The Netherlands depends on how the economy will develop. According to the CBS, there is a connection between unemployment levels in The Netherlands and the number of guest workers from EU countries, especially those from the UK. Despite slow economic growth, the Dutch labour market may soon have to cope with a shortage, as many workers will reach retirement in the coming years. One solution would be to hire more foreigners.


Finally, let’s not forget the ‘Local Foreign Hires’ - the foreigners working under Dutch contracts. “These people want to stay longer and integrate into the Dutch community. I expect this group to grow, because they are cheaper for the companies to hire than regular expats”, concludes Mrs Van Hilten.


Consumers’ paradise

Maastricht is the home of many shops that expats would recognise and feel at home in. Britons can enjoy a newly-opened branch of Lush, the body and hair products shop. It is the third to open in the Netherlands after the success of two shops in Amsterdam. Maastricht will also be the first Dutch city to harbour a Fnac superstore. The famous French multimedia products and equipment reseller will be opened at the Mosae Forum, a mall situated between the Market square and the Maas and due to open in 2006.