No student lasts longat New Neopharm
Bullied and fired
on the spot
‘With great pleasure I want to announce I won’t be coming back to work. The work environment was just too negative for me.’
‘You ask us to respect you but never show any respect to us. We’re all adults working there, there is absolutely no reason for you to treat us like six-year-olds or shout at us. Let alone torment us when we made a mistake. […] We are humans not machines.’
‘I have never in my life experienced such a toxic environment that threatens to fire you for genuinely very abnormal and disproportionate reasons.’
‘Yelling at your employees isn’t normal. I hope you’ll understand that one day.’
For students who have worked at the Groningen-based company New Neopharm, there are no hugs or drinks when they quit their jobs. Instead, they use the company WhatsApp group to wish their colleagues staying behind good luck and to talk about people who were fired on the spot, managers who intimidate and bully people, and being docked an hour’s pay just because you were two minutes late.
New Neopharm Ltd. is a wholesale dealer active in the import and export and repackaging of pharmaceutical products. At the core of the company is the repackaging unit, where young women – men do not get hired – sort medicines coming from other countries, labelling and repacking them. The company currently employs approximately forty women, most of whom are students as well as international.
It puzzled student Charlotte that there were only women working there and that the company explicitly asked for ‘enthusiastic female colleagues’ on their recruiting leaflets. ‘But I was told it was for my own safety. It sounded quite weird and I wasn’t sure whether the manager was serious or not.’
She quickly realised how strained the atmosphere was and didn’t dare to ask more. Whenever she made a mistake, like misplacing an object or a pack of pills, the managers would yell at her, or threaten to fire her. ‘I was extremely tense and scared’, she says, ‘fearing I would be shouted at again. It was terrifying.’ She wanted to stand up for herself and her colleagues, but she didn’t, because she needed the money. ‘I knew that I would be fired for it.’
I feared I would be shouted at again
Students around her were being let go for the smallest things. Like when a colleague was fired on the spot after misplacing an item. ‘Three of the managers came into the canteen and started ranting about our lazy behaviour and the great loss in production time we caused’, she says.
They cussed at them all for ten minutes straight and announced that someone would be fired, right there. It could have been her, Charlotte says, as she had made that same mistake more than once in the past. However, another girl was told to get her stuff immediately and left the building crying.
Charlotte stayed at New Neopharm for over a year. ‘I should have left way earlier’, she says now. ‘I feel ashamed of staying so long and not doing the morally right thing.’
She is not the only student with stories like this. UKrant talked to more than twenty former student employees and uncovered a system based on intimidation and psychological abuse. ‘The atmosphere in the office is one of pure anxiety’, says Violeta. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed in a workplace in my life.’
I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed in a workplace
‘Managers scream at everyone all the time’, says Jay. ‘You are constantly scared of getting fired for the smallest mistakes. And that creates a toxic environment, where you live in a state of terror and uncertainty.’
They were even yelled at for talking during idle moments. Lucie remembers a manager saying that if they’d see her talking again, they’d have to let her go. ‘When that happened, we just kept still and silent’, she says.
It was always a surprise what would set the managers off. One student texted her manager at eleven in the evening that she couldn’t come to work because she was in hospital after a car accident. She got an annoyed reply. ‘Sorry that you were in a car accident. But you could have messaged at 8.00 a.m. When you text in the middle of the night, you disturb our rest.’
When you text in the middle of the night, you disturb our rest
Another employee was fired for not telling the managers that she’d had a corona test. New Neopharm demands employees tell them when they’re taking a test, regardless of their symptoms. But that’s not allowed, says Hilgo Nusselder with the pharmaceutical sector of the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions, FNV. ‘You are not obliged to tell your boss what illness you have and obviously not even the types of visits or tests you are taking; as long as the safety measures are followed.’
But New Neopharm has its own rules, firing anyone who doesn’t follow them. One states that those who leave candy in their lab coats will be fired immediately. The company threatens ‘unpleasant consequences’ for employees talking about the company. Finally, there’s the rule that says that when you are two minutes late, you’re docked an hour’s pay.
The latter happened to Mary. She says she got in at 8.28 a.m. and that she was in the office wearing her mask and lab coat by 8.32 a.m. She was immediately told that she wasn’t being paid for that first hour. There are more rules like this. The company’s job contract gives managers the right to terminate the relationship with the workers ‘at any time for operational reasons’ – which could be anything – and ‘students are required at all times to comply with company rules, policies and procedures’.
However, most of the women have never even seen that contract, they say. Student workers do sign a document on day one that ‘looks like a sort of agreement on something governmental, but is definitely not an actual contract’, says Lucie. That document is then sealed away, without a copy being distributed to the students.
Twenty employees together can make a difference
Bas van Weegberg with the FNV acknowledges that students are a particularly vulnerable category of workers. Companies like New Neopharm use the fact that students need work and money. ‘Unfortunately, situations like those of the student workers at New Neopharm are getting more common, especially when it comes to the instability of their working conditions’, says Weegberg. ‘The pandemic has also worsened the situation, and students and other young workers are particularly affected.’
Even though the New Neopharm contract is legitimate, Nusselder says it looks ‘terrible’ and is ‘really basic and very vague’. Van Weegberg is shocked by the situation at New Neopharm. Screaming, public firing and causing stress are unethical and irresponsible behaviours, he says. But he’s also worried that only women are hired and no contract is provided. ‘It’s possible these are discriminatory and illegal behaviours’, he says.
FNV urges the student employees to take action, as a united front. ‘If one of them decides to stop working, New Neopharm will simply replace her; if twenty act together, they can make a difference’, says Van Weegberg.
But that’s not easy. The student workers are rarely union members, never stay at New Neopharm for long and don’t know each other very well, because they only see each other twice a week. ‘I was scared and I also saw it as a temporary commitment, so I preferred not to get involved’, explains Violeta.
She found another job and was able to leave New Neopharm. ‘I don’t feel anxious to go to work anymore. I am no longer scared of making mistakes or voicing my concerns.’
Response by New Neopharm
This article was presented to New Neopharm’s corporate management before publication. They disagree with the stories the students have told UKrant. In a response, the company says it employs many students and there is a lot of turnover. The company expects the students to obey the rules and procedures that are in place. New Neopharm says the company works with medication and not following procedure due to ‘certain employees slacking off’ means they might have to be thrown out. ‘However, this has never led to anyone being dismissed.’
The company denies the issues the interviewees mentioned more than once (docking pay, shouting managers, colleagues being publicly fired, harassment, banning employees from talking to each other). New Neopharm does acknowledge that ‘some days can be hectic’. ‘It’s production work, which means there are targets that need to be met. We tell people this when they apply for a job with us.’
New Neopharm also says that during the corona crisis, it has always obeyed the RIVM guidelines, and that it continues to do so. ‘We have fired no one due to a positive or negative covid test.’
UKrant spoke to more than twenty student workers at New Neopharm. Because they fear repercussions, their names have been faked. UKrant knows their real names.