Finding forgotten pensions
Director Peter Borgdorff keeps on emphasising why his Association of Industry-wide Pension Funds (VB) is putting money and effort into bringing together workers and their pension. “We don’t consider just providing a pension as our only social responsibility. We also want to be sure that the people, who have been saving for it, really receive it. Although workers are legally bound to come and get their pension, we see it as our social duty to take it to them. That’s why we almost pursue retiring employees, in order to take lost pension entitlements to them.”
Representing three-quarters of the national pension agreements, VB has been running its special helpdesk for forgotten pensions since the 1990s. Then it started as a temporarily initiative, together with the umbrellas for company pension funds Opf, and the Dutch Association of insurers VvV.
“By matching all our files, we succeeded reasonably well in tracing pensions which had gone off the radar,” says Roos Kuip, manager of VB’s public relations. “But without the aid of computers, it was a pretty labour-intensive job. Despite the best intentions, the project didn’t evolve into a permanent joint operation.”
However, the questions kept on arriving at VB, and in ever growing numbers. The demand got so out of hand, that the organisation had to appoint a part-timer for dealing with all the inquiries. It also needed to adapt software in order to cope with the task.
The pension funds’ standard approach is to get in touch with the registry office of the local governments, shortly before workers reach their retirement age. Of the few percent who haven’t been traced that way, half of them are usually found by matching the scheme’s files with those of the Social Security Bank SVB. This body also keeps track of workers abroad with entitlements to the Dutch state pension AOW.
At the moment, VB’s helpdesk gets 12,000 telephone calls a year from people who have lost track of pension rights. In addition, VB receives 1,500 letters and 3,500 e-mails. “Every article about the helpdesk in a magazine for the elderly will cause a flood of questions,” says Borgdorff. The numbers of e-mails in particular is rising so fast, that VB needed to hire one more assistant for the helpdesk.
“People typically approach us with the message that they presume to have a pension, but they can’t trace the company or insurer because of successive mergers or name changes. Sometimes companies have disappeared altogether,” Borgdorff explains. “We refer them to the pension fund or insurance company which fits their description. It’s up to them to get in touch for completing their search. We usually don’t know how things develop from there. But because hardly anybody reports back to us, we assume that they have found their answers.”
Almost without exception, the helpdesk customers are looking for small pensions, saved from short-term or low-paid jobs. Borgdorff: “If it’s about the pension which is destined to become the pensioner’s main income, people will actively find out where and how to get it. Nevertheless, people who get in touch with us are often on low income, and to them every euro extra is welcome.”
Many of the helpdesk inquiries are from people who have moved abroad, and in quite a few cases their search has been caused by an incomplete labour agreement. “In earlier days the contract was sometimes not more than a scrap of paper. Especially the catering industry, with its many temporarily jobs, is a good example of a sector where things like this could happen. If the job has been left before the introduction of the social-fiscal number, tracing the pension is extra difficult,” Borgdorff explains.
VB doesn’t discriminate in dealing with inquiries. “It doesn’t make any difference if the questions are about VB, Opf or VvV. We treat everybody equally,” the director stresses
Quite a few helpdesk inquiries are from Morocco, which has been a main source of migrant workers in The Netherlands since the 1960s. A lot of people have moved back there, after finishing their working life in Holland. Their interests are often represented by fellow-countrymen, who specialise locally in searching for missing pension rights.
Only very rarely, people who are still living in Holland cannot find their pension. “In these cases they have never informed their pension provider or their local registry office when they moved house,” Roos Kuip, communications manager at VB, says.
“One of the most memorable requests for helpdesk assistance came from a widow of 80,” Borgdorff remembers. “She had been entitled to surviving relatives benefit since she was 65. Although the pension fund involved didn’t have an obligation to do so, it raised her benefits considerably because all the money she had missed out on. This case is one of the little pearls in the work of our helpdesk.”
According to Borgdorff, VB gets relatively few questions on schemes like ABP. “Apparently, they are well accessible”, he presumes. “And they might have profited from the feedback on the helpdesk issues that we pass on to the pension funds.”
The system on a whole has been very effective so far. On a total of €14bn of paid pension benefits by schemes and insurers, only €3m remained without a destination in 2004.
The growing popularity of the helpdesk means that the project will definitely continue. “We have already in principle agreed with the VvV on a future co-operation,” says Borgdorff. “And we will keep on trying to get the Opf fully on board as well, because the forgotten pensions are a joint responsibility.” The VvV covers between five and 10% of the collective pension schemes in the second pillar. The Opf represents the remaining schemes.
Borgdorff is already looking further ahead. “The uniform pension statement will offer new opportunities,” he says. “The standardised information as of 2007, will probably enable us to set up an interactive website on which people can find out about all their pension rights.”
His example is an already existing site in Denmark. However with approximately 35 providers, the pensions landscape in Denmark is a bit more clear than in Holland, where over a thousand pension funds and insurers are active.
On an interactive website, for example, deferred pensioners could find updated information about their pension rights every year, instead of every five years in the uniform statement. Although such a project will be complicated and expensive, it must be possible to have a comprehensive website up and running in five to 10 years years time, Borgdorff thinks.