23 Dec, 2020

Wish you were here. The EU’s invisible migrants cherry-picked to keep veggies cheap

by Simone Benazzo

The Covid19 pandemic has forced Europeans to acknowledge a bitter truth that is usually swept under the carpet: their high degree of dependency on seasonal workers coming from Central and Eastern Europe to harvest Western European fields. Each year Romanian, Bulgarian and Polish labourers fly to the West to undertake jobs that Britons, Germans, French and Italians “are no longer willing to undertake”. 

The reason is rather easy to grasp: as reported by Balkan Insight, the minimum wage in Romania is around 650 euros a month, while job offers for seasonal work in agri-food in Germany or Britain have a starting salary of 1,500 euros. 

The months during which coronavirus raged throughout Europe proved beyond a shadow of a doubt how this foreign, and often vilified and neglected, manpower is  key to keeping the prices of fruit and vegetable low for local customers. Căpşunari (the derogatory Romanian word for “strawberry pickers”) had never felt so sought-after before last spring.

According to a study published by the European Commission in 2019, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria, together with Italy and Portugal, are the homelands of the majority of intra-EU migrant workers. Many among them spend the summer bent on their knees in fields throughout the continent, invisible yet essential for local economies. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that on March 30th the EU classed this labour force as “critical workers,” thus enabling them to travel despite the restrictive measures imposed to contain the virus.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus in the spring alarmed the landowners of the richer European states, who began to fret about losing their harvest, due to a shortage of manpower willing to pick it for low wages and in dire working conditions - long hours and almost no days off, even on weekends. In many countries, entrepreneurs even arranged charter flights to fly in these migrant workers directly from their countries. 


Last April, the German government allowed a maximum of around 40,000 seasonal workers to enter the country; they were followed by a second 40,000-strong contingent  barely a month later. In an unusual show of sympathy, the Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner made a one-time appearance at the airport to welcome these so-called “helpers” with chocolate Easter bunnies.

According to German law, the minimum wage is fixed at 9.35 euros per hour. However, according to first-hand witnesses, migrant workers only receive that sum if they pick at least 23 kilograms of asparagus per hour. What’s more, with seasonal workers required to pay their employer for their food and accomodation, Romanian or Bulgarian labourers working in Germany may end up earning around 6 euros per hour. Very few Germans would be tempted to spend ten or twelve hours slogging on all fours, rain or shine, to pick strawberries or asparagus for such a meager amount of money.

A German farmer was quoted explaining to the tabloid Bild that “Most Germans are not used to working stooped in fields for hours on end. They complain about the backache.” More than three decades after the Fall of the “Mauer”, Eastern Europeans are still fond of Stakhanovism: “Romanians and Poles are stronger and they work weekends and public holidays,” he added. 

Such physical strength could turn out not to be enough, however, to beat the coronavirus, which in the crowded spaces where the migrant workers lived and worked could spread with ease. Due to their status as seasonal workers, the majority of this “essential” workforce had no health insurance, and therefore couldn’t seek medical treatment in Germany. Ramona Duminicioiu, a member of the Romanian association Eco Ruralis, pondered: “When seasonal workers are going to start dying, who will be held responsible?”. 

The UK

The virus also provided a harsh awakening for the United Kingdom, lulled by dreams of reviving the longed myth of  “splendid isolation”. 

Ironically, post-Brexit UK, resolute to “take back control” and curtail immigration flows, has rushed to ensure this badly-needed category of foreigners keeps flying in. Echoing his German colleagues, the vice-president of the UK’s National Farmers’ Union Tom Bradshaw explained that Eastern European workers “are a critical part of making sure that we can put affordable food on people’s plates, since “they understand the nature of the job and they bring productivity with them because of that experience.” 

Farmers, landowners and agricultural entrepreneurs claimed that a lack of foreign harvest workers, estimated to represent around 75% of all agricultural labourers (between 70,000 and 90,000 workers), would be “devastating.” They therefore called on Britons who had been laid off because of the pandemic to make up for the shortage and fill these vacancies to harvest crops of cucumbers, lettuce, broad beans, herbs and soft fruit which would otherwise go unpicked. 

Despite rising rates of unemployment, few Brits were persuaded by the “feed the nation” appeal, which was vocally endorsed by the environment secretary, George Eustice. A likely reason to explain why the appeal fell on deaf ears can be found in the fact that, in recent years, the British agricultural sector has been taken over by foreigners. 

In 2019, around 98% of farmers working in the UK came from EU states, mainly Romania and Bulgaria, the two EU countries that employ the highest percentage of workers in the agricultural sector. 23% of Romanians and 17.5% of Bulgarians work in agriculture - significantly higher than the bloc’s average: 4.6%. Seasoned farmers at home can easily become seasonal workers abroad. 


When it comes to agricultural labour, Italy differs slightly from the UK and Germany. 
Its fields are mostly dominated by migrants from sub-Saharian Africa, often undocumented. Officially, though, Romanians represent the bigger group of fruit pickers and, albeit in smaller numbers, Albanians, Poles, Bulgarians and Macedonians are also massively employed in the Italian agri-food, according to the Italian association of farmers, Coldiretti. The same group that sounded the alarm last February, claiming that, without this seasonal manpower, around a quarter of the agricultural production in 2020 would be left to rot. 

As was the case in other EU countries, the Italian government was urged by farmers to adopt ad hoc regulation to compensate for the shortage, caused by workers, who used to go to Italy, being locked-down in their countries, or choosing to return home  to care for their loved ones. 

Last August, however, Aboubakar Soumahoro, a former “bracciante” (the Italian term for a migrant illegally employed as a farmer) turned unionist and campaigner, complained that the special law enacted by the government to better regulate this murky sector had failed in its mission. “Just 13% of the total manpower applied to regularize their status. People keep on working 10-12 hours under the sun for an hourly wage of less than  5 euros.” As EU citizens, Romanians and Bulgarians aren’t directly bothered by the issue, as they benefit from the legal right to work in Italy, but their working conditions aren’t any better than the ones of African migrants.  

Shady shacks for a “Shadow army”

The Covid19 crisis brought to the fore not only the working conditions of seasonal workers, but also their living conditions. Cross-border migrants, lured by salaries significantly more appealing than those back home, are essentially exploited.

Invisible workers,” a joint investigation launched this year by Euronews, Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel and Mediapart, has attempted to shed some light on the miserable lives of these imported farmworkers. They may get punished if they don’t meet their picking targets. Their temporary homes are dilapidated shacks and overcrowded guesthouses with defective facilities. Fainting and vomiting from exhaustion are the norm. Some women have also reported being sexually assaulted and psychologically abused whilst out in the fields. The precarious legal status of the bulk of this manpower makes them easy prey for abusers. 

The pandemic did nothing but exacerbate these already-high levels of exploitation and vilification. Fruit pickers received neither masks nor gloves to protect themselves from the virus, and lockdowns made work inspections less frequent. As German Green MEP Daniel Freund  put it, "At the moment we actually have better protection for animals than for some of these workers on our farms."

The EU steps in

This inhumane and degrading situation caught the attention of the EU institutions. 
In late May, the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging the European Commission to “assess the employment, health and safety conditions of cross-border and seasonal workers, including the role of intermediary agencies and subcontracting firms.” MEPs also called for the European Labour Authority (ELA) to become fully operational, and insisted that national authorities increase labour inspections and ensure better quality housing for this “shadow army”. 

The EU executive responded two months later, sending ad hoc guidelines to Member States outlining how to protect the health of seasonal workers and to ensure their social rights are upheld. The European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, told Euronews that "You cannot have a business model which is based on some form of exploitation of foreign workers." 

While the concrete impact of these measures, which of course don’t apply to the UK, is yet to be assessed, German magazine Der Spiegel noted that the directives regulating the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the largest slice of the funds allocated to Member States via the bloc’s multiannual framework (around 58 billions), don’t make any reference to the protection of seasonal workers or the obligation to prevent illegal employment or modern slavery. Since the allocation system favours bigger agricultural companies, which are more likely to resort to exploitative practices, over smaller competitors, the beneficiaries of EU funding might be among the more established exploiters. Another dark side of the red and round tomato European customers find on their supermarkets’ shelves.  

Weaponizing freedom of movement to shore up the Iron Curtain

The current setting of agricultural production and distribution is just a segment of a multilayered system of structural imbalances currently dividing EU members. The power relation between employer and job seeker is not strictly limited to the agri-food. It is replicated at a higher level, between richer and poorer countries. As summarized by French-Romanian MEP Clotilde Armand in the Financial Times, “Eastern Europe gives more to the West than it gets back”. 

While the latter depend on this foreign manpower, the former perpetuate their dependency on remittances. Despite the sometimes firebrand rhetoric of their representatives, countries of origin are thus obliged to cave in and tacitly tolerate the exploitation of their nationals, which contributes to that “social dumping” which anti-EU politicians so often condemn as a nefarious side-effect of EU membership. 

Brain drain also plays a major role in the vicious circle that hampers the development of local firms and undermines the quality of the national public service. Romanians and Bulgarians with higher qualifications tend to emigrate, in search of better wages and better living conditions. The “sick system” involving the health sector provides a telling example: due to the massive emigration of highly educated young doctors and nurses, local hospitals are left with diminished, unskilled and often poorly equipped staff. 

Freedom of movement inside the EU has thus benefitted (some) individuals from post-Socialist Europe, but has weakened their home countries as a whole. The “gentrification” process involving skilled workers, namely their concentration in certain European “districts” or cities, contribute to increasing the gap between “Old” and “New” Europe, ensuring that the former retains its leverage over the latter. 

[Editing by Giorgia Bracelli]