News Articles

Michigan man wants reform after Dutch company pension funds stonewall eligible immigrants

Hoogoven fund among notable exceptions

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan - The initial offer to help some Dutch-born pensioners with completing a few forms was easy enough. About seven years later semi-retired entrepreneur John Wagenaar of the Dutch Retirement Consulting Agency (DRCA) is spending more time than ever assisting immigrants to obtain the pensions they are entitled to. Two other men, who also had helped out as volunteers, after a while gave up, frustrated by seemingly illogical rules and complexities. Wagenaar continued on his own but was forced to hire help in the Netherlands to guide along the more complicated pension applications. Some Dutch immigrants in North America who immigrated after January 1, 1957 initially were denied their Dutch ‘Algemene Ouderdomswet’ (AOW) pension but received it when Wagenaar appealed such decisions. His biggest concerns are non-government pensions, and he took these issues recently to several Dutch political parties and to parliament.

The pension treaties between the Netherlands and Canada, and the Netherlands and the U.S.A., involve the Canadian and American systems in the gathering of information for the AOW applications. Especially the Canadian system often causes lengthy delays to these applications before they are forwarded to AOWs administrative agency, the Sociale Verzekeringsbank in Zwolle (Canada) and Groningen (U.S.A.). According to Wagenaar, cumbersome Canadian procedures often are to blame for the delays, especially if the applicant (or his or her children) is not quite certain how to interpret the request for certain types of information.

The problem with Dutch company pensions is still greater, says Wagenaar but quickly points out that the ABP pension fund for former government and government agencies' employees, and the pension fund of Hoogovens, the steel foundry, are the most notable exceptions. They have a very professional approach, reports Wagenaar.

Many Dutch immigrants who thirty years ago worked (notably as tradesmen or in factories) in the Netherlands, often have no idea which pension fund their former employer paid into. Nor do they know which company assumed successor status after corporate acquisitions or mergers, or which conglomerate now owns the pension fund. And just because the former employer or his successor went bankrupt, does not mean there is no longer a pension benefit available.

Onus on pensioners to apply

Dutch company pension plans generally follow the principle of ‘haalplicht’ - they only will pay out when a pensioner applies for it and persistently pursues his claim. Wagenaar feels that the pension funds instead should be obligated to follow ‘brengplicht’ and make every effort to trace those eligible for a pension. To prompt the government to regulate the company pension funds into a system of disclosure via a central registry, Wagenaar's Dutch representative recently launched a campaign to draw attention to the problem.

Wagenaar also wants any pension fund, including the Sociale Verzekeringsbank and its North American treaty partners, to fast-track correspondence regarding pension applications. Especially company pension plans often require six to nine months, sometimes eighteen, before an applicant receives a response. “Every month pension payments can be delayed,” complains Wagenaar, “earns these outfits millions at the expense of people on fixed income.” The government complicates the problem, since pension funds can not just release - even a small lump sum - payments if the foreign recipient does not have a so-called sofinummer - a taxation number - which again requires more waiting time.

Another major irritant is the lack of openness regarding the size of the pension payment once eligibility has been confirmed, says Wagenaar. It is impossible to determine if the payment indeed covers the amount owed by the pension fund or if it actually indexed the amount when there is such an obligation.

Reform of system

Pensioners over 70 face an additional challenge. Almost all pension requests are turned down if the applicant was born before 1929. The Stichting Niet Opgevraagde Pensioenen - an effort by some pension funds to publicize the embarrassing number of unclaimed cases, but which was abandoned again in 1998 - had no information on pre-1929 pensioners. The foundation, formed after public pressure, only existed a short time and was entirely ‘voluntary’. Hundreds of DRCA letters were sent to as many company pension funds; a fully one third of these remain unanswered. One applicant received a small pension, ten received lump sum payments, ranging from 25 to 3,000 guilders and ten others have a still undetermined amount coming.

In his letter to several political parties and to a parliamentarian, Wagenaar proposes to regulate the approximately 1,000 company pension funds by prescribing the ‘brengplicht’, voting rights for proposals involving policy changes for present and future pensioners, full disclosure when pension fund companies change ownership or merge, and an appeal process when decisions are disputed.

The DRCA has helped hundreds of retired immigrants to process their pension applications.