Do not stop talking about the exploitation of seasonal migrant farm workers

Vladimir Bogoeski, University of Amsterdam Law School

This blog post builds on the article “Continuities of Exploitation: Seasonal Migrant Workers in German Agriculture during Covid-19” (Vol 49, Issue 4, 2022), and reflects on three main points. First it reminds that the political momentum and media presence that seasonal migrant farmworkers gained in the first two pandemic years has been lost again. Second, it addresses the continuity of the exploitative working condition that were medially exposed during the pandemic. Third, it reflects on different patterns of solidarity with seasonal migrant farmworkers that emerged in Germany since the pandemic.

The forgotten seasonal migrant farmworkers

This year, many European countries have experienced the hottest summer on record. While the effects of the rising temperatures on the day to day lives of people around Europe and globally have been widely discussed, including how such rising temperatures are affecting the world of work, one group of workers, most acutely affected by the rising temperatures, has been largely forgotten. Seasonal migrant workers in European agriculture, the main force behind the harvest on European farms and fields, have directly felt the rising temperatures on top of their usually strenuous work routines. 

The surprising thing, however, was that compared to two years ago –when seasonal farmworkers slid into the media focus due to Covid-19 lockdowns, travel restrictions and the fear of food shortages– this year there was no much special media attention to the people working long days on farm and fields and staying in overheated accommodations as temperatures were reaching over 40 degrees Celsius. The original media momentum that seasonal migrant workers gained during the first two pandemic years seems to be winding down due to the other crises that have since then emerged. With the Ukraine war, the energy crisis, the ever-rising inflation and the economic crisis unfolding globally, even those actively following the topic of seasonal agricultural work could barely read something this summer. However, while the exploitative working and degrading living conditions that the pandemic exposed might have been new to some parts of the public, they haven’t been new in general. The structures producing them have been well in place and have continued to exist after they were exposed in the course of the last two years. 

Seasonal migrant farmworkers during Covid-19: continuities of exploitation 

In Germany, these structures, mainly consisting of law regulating migration and work, employers’ exploitative practices, general lack of institutional oversight and enforcement of rights and protection standards, structural isolation (language barriers, lack of institutional knowledge, very limited collective representation and physical distance from communities) and exclusion from social solidarity structures (health insurance and social security), have been further worsened under the political response to Covid-19 requiring further isolation, movement restriction and exclusion without accommodating the particular needs of seasonal migrant farmworkers.

As my paper demonstrates, from the analysis of the political responses and legal interventions as well as the interviews with trade union counsellors for migrant workers, we see a continuity in further disembedding of seasonal migrant farm workers from institutional structures during the pandemic. In addition to normalised overtime work, cutting overtime hours from payrolls, calculating wages based on piece-meal work and charging high rents for crowded accommodations, an exacerbated continuity of disembedding with both short- and long-term consequences caused the legal intervention extending the social security exemption applicable to seasonal migrant workers in agriculture. While not being insured in Germany, and the majority not being within the social and health insurance frameworks in their home countries, workers were severely vulnerable in the case of illness. Counsellors for migrant workers have reported cases where a worker has not been brought to the hospital but have been merely kept isolated in an accommodation room. The case of a Romanian worker who died after an infection with the Covid-19 in 2020 clearly demonstrates what can happen when the access to medical help is not guaranteed. These are the most alarming consequences, aside from other structural issues such as pre-programmed old-age poverty of those workers who regularly spend several months every year as seasonal workers without being registered with social, health or pension insurance schemes neither in the countries where the seasonal work takes place nor in their home countries.

Channels of solidarity amidst lacking political responses

Given the reality of understaffed control and monitoring authorities as well as the increasingly difficult accessibility of farms and accommodation facilities during the pandemic, reflecting on whether some alternative pathways of resistance and solidarity have emerged during the two pandemic years becomes necessary. At least three such strands of solidarity have stood out in Germany. First, the information campaigns by unions and union-affiliated counselling services. Second, the support offered to workers by unions and activist groups organising ad hoc collective actions. Third, some initiatives by unions aiming at organising seasonal migrant farmworkers. 

The work of the Fair Work in Agriculture Initiative particularly stands out. The initiative that consists of unions and related counselling centres for migrant workers (e.g. the Fair Mobility network) strategically maps farms employing seasonal migrant workers in different agricultural regions in Germany, plans and conducts visits of both fields and collective accommodations. Counsellors disseminate information in different languages on labour rights and protection standards applying to seasonal migrant farmworkers in Germany. They also encourage workers to reach out in a case they might have questions or are facing concrete problems, and also do organising work. 

In addition to the information campaigns, the agriculture trade union – IG BAU, has started an organising initiative by offering temporary membership adjusted to the situation of seasonal migrant farmworkers. As unions are often bound by law to provide legal services and assistance to members only, having such memberships entitles them to support seasonal workers in a concrete situation, and even provide legal representation in courts. This is not to understand that these memberships are in some way instrumentalising the political purpose of a trade union – as a provider of legal services to workers in distress, thus reducing unions to the equivalent of a legal insurance. This membership model could be a first step towards imagining an entry for seasonal migrant workers into the institutionalised collective structures of organised labour in Germany.

Finally, we witnessed solidarity turned into effective collective actions. The Free Workers’ Union (FAU) supporting Romanian seasonal farmworkers in organising and fighting for their unpaid wages in Bornheim and Bonn in 2020 is one such case. The case of Georgian farmworkers suing for unpaid wages in court is another one, particularly demonstrating the potential of transnational collaboration between unions and activists supporting workers.

Given the continuities of the structures of exploitation of seasonal migrant farmworkers before and during the pandemic, a comprehensive political response at national and European level is necessary. The recently introduced social conditionality in CAP is a starting point, which should be followed by further developing and strengthening of control and monitoring structures. Meanwhile, the least we can do is pursue further avenues of solidarity and never stop talking about the ongoing injustice towards seasonal migrant farmworkers behind the food all of us consume.

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