Can Europe Make It?

The only frequent flyers left: migrant workers in the EU in times of Covid-19

In a bizarre twist of fate, migrant workers from eastern Europe have remained the only mobile segment of Europe’s population.

Manès Weisskircher Julia Rone Mariana S. Mendes
20 April 2020
Measuring the body temperature of 160 Romanian harvest workers after landing at Hahn Airport. April 13, 2020.
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Thomas Frey/PA. All rights reserved.

As many European countries have closed their borders and imposed stringent quarantine measures, there is a group of people that continues crossing borders, exposing themselves to risk, often because they hardly have another choice – migrant workers from eastern Europe.

“Immediate departure - England”, “The Netherlands – Picking up Asparagus”, “Soft Fruits – Scotland”, “Germany Bochum, factory”. These are the titles of some of the 60 job ads published in April, amidst the Corona lockdown, on a Bulgarian jobs website for working abroad. As Romanian workers gather at crowded terminals waiting for their charter flights to Germany, the persistent inequalities within the EU are exposed more clearly than ever. We are all in this together, but some are more in than others.

“De-facto quarantine with simultaneous work opportunity”

Governments and businesses in western Europe have pushed for travel exemptions for eastern Europeans, in order to tackle the dire shortages of seasonal labour for planting and harvesting crops at this time of the year. On March 30, the European Commission released new “practical advice” to ensure that cross-border and frontier workers within the EU, in particular those with critical professions, can reach their workplace. The definition of “critical professions” is extremely flexible: “This includes but is not limited to [emphasis added] those working in the health care and food sectors, and other essential services like childcare, elderly care, and critical staff for utilities”.

Germany is making plans to fly in tens of thousands of eastern Europeans for harvesting – keeping the system of seasonal work alive despite the crisis. It is illustrative that, in Frankfurt, incoming Romanians were welcomed with chocolate Easter bunnies by the German agricultural minister – not an accolade they normally receive. In Austria, care-workers were flown in from Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania, and more are supposed to follow – even though the Romanian government recently prevented another flight. Whereas two years ago the then right-wing Austrian government introduced measures that reduced the family allowance of many of these eastern European workers, now there are even bonus payments for those care-workers who stay longer. Two Austrian regions have also flown in agricultural workers from Romania.

Whereas two years ago the then right-wing Austrian government introduced measures that reduced the family allowance of many of these eastern European workers, now there are even bonus payments for those care-workers who stay longer.

The economic logic is clear. While for western standards, eastern Europeans provide cheap labour, the wages these workers receive in the West are still much higher than what they would get for the same work at home. In addition, long hours of gruelling and low-paid work under the spring and summer sun is not something many westerners are keen on doing. It is telling that, despite soaring unemployment rates at home, western and southern European governments, from Spain to Sweden, are nonetheless alarmed over the shortages of farm workers. This has included calling on local citizens to help in the fields. But it should come as no surprise if these calls fall short of expectations, in light of the dire working and living conditions of farm work, on top of the current health hazard.

No choice

For many eastern Europeans, though, this is their only way to make ends meet. Lack of proper health care insurance, social protection, and adequate working conditions for eastern European workers have already been a serious problem in the past. But these problems have been exacerbated even further by the pandemic. According to a recent ad for warehouse work in the UK, workers are expected to work 12-hours day and night shifts and receive between 8.35 and 12 GBP per hour depending on achieving set targets. The costs for travel are paid by the workers themselves, in addition to up to 85 GBP per week for accommodation. Workers are also expected to pay two weeks of rent in advance upon arrival and a tax for the housing agency.

In the meantime in Germany, eastern European agricultural workers are expected to undergo a “de-facto quarantine with simultaneous work opportunity”.

Romanian workers
Thomas Frey/PA. All rights reserved.

In the meantime in Germany, eastern European agricultural workers are expected to undergo a “de-facto quarantine with simultaneous work opportunity”. That is, they should stay in quarantine while working and sharing accommodation with half-as-many people as usual. Taking into account that accommodations sometimes house up to a dozen workers, this is hardly a strict protection measure. On April 11, a 57-year old Romanian agricultural worker was found dead in German Baden-Württemberg. He had gotten infected with Covid-19 while harvesting asparagus, one of German’s favourite veggies.

In an open letter from of March 31, the Bulgarian trade union Podkrepa demanded that the Bulgarian government either stops workers from leaving the country – by providing them with minimal basic income during the crisis – or pressurises receiving countries into protecting the economic rights and health of workers, and not sending them back to Bulgaria before the crisis ends. So far, neither of these routes has been taken.

Open borders without proper social protection serve the interest of employers

The number of infections in many eastern European countries is still low, in part due to the quick introduction of restrictive measures of “social distancing”. Still, any potential increase could be fatal, given the austerity-stricken decrepit state of the health systems of many of these countries. The municipal hospital of the small town Bulgarian town of Provadia, for example, has no ventilators and counts on an 84-years old pulmonologist and a 60-years old anaesthesiologist, – in a country where many young medical graduates have emigrated to the West and are now helping to tackle the pandemic elsewhere.

Yet, this should not be interpreted in simplistic moral frames pitting the exploitative West versus the innocent East. Instead of increasing the wages of workers in Bulgaria, Bulgarian employers lobbied actively in the past to “import” cheap labour from third countries such as Moldova and Ukraine. Many of the Bulgarian job ads for work abroad in fact advertise jobs in Czechia, another Central and Eastern European country.

There has been an important debate on workers’ rights taking place also within southern European countries that have long relied on the inflow of seasonal cheap labour from eastern Europe but also from north and sub-Saharan Africa. The Italian Agriculture Minister recently sparked debate when suggesting that undocumented immigrants from third countries should be given work permits to fill those gaps. This would at the same time provide greater protection to a highly vulnerable sector of the population and avoid shortages of fresh food and the rise in prices. Unsurprisingly, her proposal has been met with fierce resistance by the far right.

The underlying problem is a systemic one concerning the way employers exploit wage differences across borders.

What all this comes to show is that the underlying problem is a systemic one concerning the way employers exploit wage differences across borders. Open borders without proper social protection serve first and foremost the interest of employers. The labour force of sending countries becomes nothing but a labour reserve for receiving countries, contributing to social dumping abroad and labour shortage at home.

In practical terms, now is the moment to push for unionization of migrant workers and legal measures to guarantee their rights, not only now, when it is urgent to have them, but also in the future. In addition, more cooperation between eastern European trade unions and trade unions in western countries such as Germany and the UK is direly needed.

Now, it is more important than ever to focus on the consequences of emigration, especially seasonal and short-term labour, both on the individual health and wellbeing of workers and on the economy and public health in the sending countries. Behind the asparagus and strawberries that we eat this spring, while self-isolating, there are the lives of those who cannot afford to stay home, including those who have to take charter flights to work in “semi-quarantine” conditions in foreign countries, at their own risk.

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