Without rights for farm workers, EU’s food supplies are at risk

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the EU has to ensure labour and health protection for migrant farm workers.

COVID19 workers
Seasonal workers harvest vegetables in a farm near Rome on April 4, 2020 [Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP]

European Union institutions and national governments are scrambling to address the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for European farming, vowing that food supplies will not be affected. Procedures for accessing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies are being relaxed and funds are being pumped into the sector to keep farmers and businesses afloat.

Meanwhile, farming associations have sounded the alarm about large labour shortages, highlighting the fact that, whatever Europe’s populists claim, our farming depends to a large extent on migrant labour.

Lockdowns across the EU mean that seasonal workers from Central and Eastern EU states cannot travel, although Germany has allowed them to do so to salvage the spring produce. Those from outside the EU also cannot get in, although exemptions to the EU travel ban were hastily broadened last week to include seasonal labourers.

In their quest to guarantee food supplies without fixing a broken system, however, policymakers appear not to be focusing on the people picking our fruit and vegetables, packing and processing our food, and transporting it across Europe.

In fact, calls to cut red tape and to suspend reporting requirements will probably make working conditions even worse. Replacing migrant workers with unemployed nationals, as some governments are trying – largely unsuccessfully – to do, will also not improve labour conditions.

Even before the pandemic hit Europe, its agricultural system was struggling to remain economically viable despite massive EU funding. Crucially, it was also both environmentally and socially unsustainable, depleting soil, poisoning aquifers and concentrating power in the hands of retail cartels which have been driving prices so low that in many cases they are below production costs.

As existing and forthcoming research published by the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI) shows, farmers resort to cutting the only cost they have any control over – the price of labour.

This has led to widespread exploitation, not just in countries like Italy where conditions are often akin to slavery, but also in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.

In Southern Europe, thousands of migrant farm workers eke out a living in shacks and unsanitary settlements where the pandemic could have devastating effects. In the fields, labourers toil in close proximity, with no protective equipment at the best of times.

So what can and should the EU do?

The pandemic presents the EU with an opportunity to overhaul its agricultural and food system to make it greener, fairer and more efficient, with shorter and less circuitous supply chains, adequate prices for both farmers and consumers, and guaranteed labour rights for workers. 

The EU’s agricultural policy has thus far favoured industrial farming and its so-called social dimension has focused on farmers, but not workers. The new CAP is finally expected to include respect for environmental standards among the criteria for granting farming subsidies.

Labour conditions should also be part of these so-called conditionalities. While supporting farmers in this crisis is important, injecting more cash into a broken system or cutting red tape will not fix it.

Instead, these measures may end up subsidising polluters and may not benefit workers at all, as more money in farmers’ pockets is no guarantee of higher wages for labourers.

To address labour shortages during the current lockdowns, the European Commission could take up the proposal from the European Parliament’s agriculture committee for a special EU-wide laissez-passer for seasonal workers. To ensure labourers also arrive from outside Europe, the Commission should upscale its existing legal migration pilot projects.

A single EU-wide screening procedure and the guarantee of protective gear and decent working conditions would ensure respect for labour rights as well as allaying concerns about contagion on both sides.

In member states like Italy and Spain, national governments should be supported if they decide to grant an amnesty to undocumented migrants, who are the most vulnerable part of the pool of exploitable labour already in the country.

Large migrant facilities should be shut down across the EU, with people moved to smaller housing units where physical distancing is possible. In most EU countries, the suspension of asylum and immigration procedures due to the pandemic has also thrown millions into limbo and may deprive many of papers. Permits should therefore be automatically prolonged, as Portugal has already done.

The crisis unleashed by the spread of the coronavirus has shown just how fragile and unstainable our food supply system is. The EU institutions and national governments should act now, to make sure the food we eat is not produced by exploiting people and planet – and so that we are ready for the next crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.