If you thought your government always considered you as a grown-up, reasonable person, you’re probably wrong. At least when it comes to saving money for your own retirement. As is well-known, most citizens in western countries are considered by their governments to be in need of a pension fund to save up money for their old age. This is also the case with most Dutch citizens who have jobs at (semi-)governmental institutions. For example: are obliged to automatically contribute money to a pension fund (ABP) each month. Unfortunately, some of these people do not know that their forced payment is invested in dark affairs on the other side of the world.
There are several disadvantages to the system of obligatory pension contributions. For example: the unpleasant patronising message that runs from it. Our government considers us unfit to save up money for ourselves. Also, people run the risk of eventually getting less benefits than they originally paid to the funds. Or they run the risk of having to work a couple of years more before they get to enjoy their pension, as is currently the case in the Netherlands. But this blog is not about these issues. This blog is about another problem with the system of obligatory pension contribution: the fact that no one has influence over what the millions of Euros of the pension funds are used for.
Problem of ignorance
The fact that there is widespread ignorance about how pension contributions are spent wouldn’t be such a problem if they were invested in uncontroversial affairs. But of course I would not write a blog about this topic if that were the case. The investment ‘policy’ (if you may call it that) of pension funds is a continuing concern for employees. Every now and then pension funds make the headlines because they invest people’s money in controversial matters. Only this August, a petition signed by 1.7 million people was handed over to one of the biggest pension funds in the Netherlands, ABP. It asked the pension fund to stop investing money in so-called ‘projects that oppress the Palestinian people’. In October 2013, the same pension fund was discredited for investing money in nuclear weapons. This month, again, the ABP pension fund fell into disrepute for investing in controversial matters. This time, it turns out, the money is invested in Chinese battery cages. It is well-known that conditions for chickens in battery cages are terrible. The cage of a single hen is smaller than an A4-sized paper sheet. The chickens cannot spread their wings and can hardly turn around. The fact that these chickens are cramped together so tightly often causes terrible diseases. The poor animals never leave their cages, except for when they are eventually released from their suffering in death. It should not be a surprise that this brutal way of keeping animals was banned in the European Union in January 2012.
Pension funds are uncontrollable
It sounds like a bad joke that the money of Dutch people who work for the government is invested in matters on the other side of the world that are strictly prohibited in their own country. People who don’t want their money to be invested in illegal business, or who don’t want to be responsible for severe animal abuse, are absolutely powerless. They have no formal means of influencing the investment policy of the pension fund, neither can they stop contributing to the pension funds that are responsible for the illegal investments, because the government obliges them to pay the pension contribution. A logical response in a decent democracy would be to ask the minister who is responsible for the governmental pension fund to account for the misconduct of the pension fund. This is exactly what the Dutch foundation for animal welfare Wakker Dier has called for. The minister in question (Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Plasterk), however, replied that the government has no influence whatsoever over the investment policy of the pension fund to which all civil workers in the Netherlands have to contribute. He did not seem to be bothered by this fact. I cannot help but wonder how Minister Plasterk would have responded if our money had been invested in other illegal matters abroad, such as child labour or medicines that are used for death penalties. Would he still have been so stubborn about not having influence over any of this? If that were the case, that would be a clear indication that there is something terribly wrong with the pension system in the Netherlands.