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Growing Intra-EU Migrations in the Era of Coronavirus?

BLOG - 18 May 2020

Since the advent of the Covid-19 crisis, migrant agricultural workers were recognised as essential in feeding Europeans. Their transferral across locked-down Europe raised serious economic and political issues. How they will be solved might have long-term structural consequences to EU cohesion strategies, immigration policies and business models, especially considering the fact that disruptions to seasonal migration will continue and borders might be closed beyond the summer.

The epidemic of Covid-19 and its lockdown measures could not come at a worse timing for agriculture. If the shortage of workforce will remain unsolved in the next few weeks, the majority of fruits and vegetables will be left unpicked and die in the fields, unleashing a food crisis.

Shortage of essential workers for agro-food industry

As springtime was approaching, European countries, at standstill, became increasingly hungry for migrant workers. At the end of March, the UK urgently needed to fill 90 000 positions needed to pick crops. In Italy, around 370 000 seasonal workers are needed to plant and harvest agri-food products. It will be 150 000 in Spain, 276 000 in France and 300 000 in Germany, according to farmer associations. It is estimated that Europe as a whole needs between 800 000 and one million seasonal workers each year.

It is estimated that Europe as a whole needs between 800 000 and one million seasonal workers each year.

The share of immigrant key workers fluctuates around 20% in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Austria. In Italy, about 28% of agricultural workers are migrants and 53% of them are from another EU country, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Poland, while the rest come from outside of the EU, many of them undocumented.

In France, this share is 30%, according to the National Federation of Agricultural Holders (FNSEA): in April, May and June only, 200 000 immigrant key workers are needed to harvest asparagus, cherries, strawberries and tomatoes.

Three strategies to recruit seasonal workforce

To avoid crop losses, governments explored three measures, often combining all of them.

As labour shortage in agriculture skyrocketed and unemployment in other sectors mounted due to the Covid-19 crisis (especially in tourism and the hospitality industry), governments tried to recruit local workers for seasonal tasks in agriculture. In March, France and Germany opened online platforms to recruit locals to harvest asparagus and other crops, calling to their patriotism.It also relaxed the rules for accumulated earnings and unemployment benefits for farmworkers.

Tens of thousands of volunteers have already registered. But new recruits need training and practice. Furthermore, the low pay and hard working conditions (worsened in the context of social distancing) travel restrictions and child-care responsibilities in a time of school closures make these jobs less attractive to local workers. In Belgium, government, trade unions and employer organisations tried to reach a deal to increase the salary of agricultural workers, but failed due to the risk of rising the prices of basic goods.

The second option was to extend the stay of foreign seasonal workers already in the country. At the end of March, the Portuguese government granted temporary residence to all immigrants with residence permit applications that were pending on March 18 (when the state of emergency was declared), allowing them de facto to stay in the country and enjoy the same rights as other citizens, including work and social support. The measure also included asylum seekers. But besides the fact that this measure often resulted in ex post regularisations and abusive practices, it also raised legal and financial challenges if it were to extend beyond a few weeks. How to support these workers between jobs and how to ensure that migration via seasonal worker programs remains temporary? Moreover, the Covid-19 crisis came in March, while the seasonal labour need for agriculture was still low, and fewer seasonal workers were already present.

The most effective solution proved to be easing travel restrictions and allowing foreign seasonal workers in during the lockdown. In countries across Europe, farm workers were classified as key workers and authorised to move around the country. On 30 March, the European Commission released practical guidelines to ensure the free movement of critical workers in the healthcare and food sectors, and other essential services like childcare, elderly care and critical utilities such as transports and water, electricity and gas supply. Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said: "Thousands of women and men, working hard to keep us safe, healthy and with food on the table, need to cross EU borders to go to work. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that they are not hindered in their movement, while taking every precaution to avoid further spread of the pandemic." Member States were asked to exchange information on their different needs and to establish specific procedures to ensure a smooth passage for such workers, called green corridors.

Charter flights from Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania started bringing care workers to Austria, whose health system is heavily dependent on staff from Eastern Europe.

Germany lifted the ban on seasonal agricultural workers entering the country, announcing that farms can recruit 80 000 people in April and May, and the German Farmers' Association started working with the Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings to operate flights from Romania to Germany, bringing tens of thousands of seasonal laborers to the spring harvests of asparagus, one of Germany’s favourite vegetables.

The most effective solution proved to be easing travel restrictions and allowing foreign seasonal workers in during the lockdown

Another 20 000 workers will be recruited among the unemployed, students, asylum seekers and workers on leave. In the UK, some workforce suppliers such as Concordia started organising special charter flights to bring workers from Eastern Europe directly to large farms in the country.

Economic logic

This movement of labour across Europe is fuelled by a clear economic logic. The agricultural sector has always been highly dependent on migrant labourers. As mentioned, in Italy, out of over 1 million of agricultural workers with regular contracts, about 28% are migrants and 53% of them are from another EU country, while the rest come from outside the EU. And it is widely recognised that these figures are largely underestimated, since they do not include irregular workforce and informal contracts, with much lower wages than the regulated ones. But over the past few years, quotas for non-EU seasonal workers have been drastically reduced, making the agriculture in the West dependent on the hundreds of thousands of cheap seasonal migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe. Thus, in March, the Association of German Farmers urged the government to open the country's borders to agricultural workers from the East as soon as possible, pointing that the local unemployed in Germany were often lacking in commitment and relevant skills.

If Western European agriculture is dependent on the cheap labour from Central Europe and the Balkans, tens of thousands of people and their families there depend on the salary they get in the West. But while well qualified Eastern Europeans provide cheap labour according to Western standards, the wages they receive are still much higher than what they would get at home. Moreover, low-paid hard work and harsh living conditions that characterize the agricultural sector is not something many Westerners accept easily, even during economic crises. In the UK, migrant workers usually work 12 hours days and night shifts, and receive from 8.35 to 12.00 GBP per hour depending on whether they achieve their targets. They also need to cover their travel to the UK and accommodation on the spot, plus agency fees. In total they can make up to 1 500 £ per month.

Last but not least, unemployment is on the rise in Eastern Europe as well. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, more than 60 000 jobs were lost in Bulgaria, especially in impoverished areas, and 200 000 workers returned home from crisis-ridden Europe. For the local labour market, it is almost impossible to absorb this additional workforce. Thus, at the beginning of April, the governments in Romania and Bulgaria exempted all charter flights carrying seasonal workers from travel restrictions imposed on commercial flights during the Covid-19 crisis. Some of these workers took up seasonal work in the regions most affected by the virus. According to Italy’s Confederation of Direct Harvesters Coldiretti, 15 000 Romanians will travel this spring to the region of Veneto, where Covid-19 hit first and hard in Europe. On top of that, migrant farmworkers are sometimes targets of racist attacks and widespread claims that immigrants are taking jobs away from local people and exploiting the system.

Worsening of working and living conditions for migrant workers

The state of emergency has dramatically aggravated the conditions of many migrant workers within and outside of the EU. The conditions of transport of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe makes social distancing almost impossible to implement. In Germany, seasonal workers from Eastern Europe are requested to stay in quarantine while working and sharing accommodation with half-as-many fellow workers as usual. Considering the fact that workers are usually housed up to 12 persons per house, this can hardly be considered as a security measure.

The conditions of transport of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe makes social distancing almost impossible to implement.

In Austria, seasonal workers have to spend 14 days confined before starting to work and then do the same thing upon returning home, having to pay the accommodation fees during the quarantine themselves. Working conditions and free movement of this population make it a perfect hotbed for the coronavirus and its spread over the continent.

Many of those who entered the country as asylum seekers before the crisis have already lost their status as a result of stricter asylum rules, especially in the countries situated on the external borders of the Schengen area, such as Italy. Many are now stuck in slums that have developed on the outskirts of the towns, waiting for the harvests to make some money. In these "ghettos" with no electricity or running water, it is impossible to ensure the basic health conditions of social distancing requested by local authorities. Many work in the fields without any security and no other place to go. In some areas, illegals gangmasters manage the recruitment, transport and accommodation of these undocumented farmworkers, taking advantage of their situation. In southern Italy, they are called caporali.

As the relaxation of EU travel restrictions suggests, the pandemic might well result in a broader precarisation of seasonal migrant workforce in Europe. It shows how hard it is to restrict economic activities in the interest of public health and safety of populations. The mounting unemployment doesn’t put the employees in a position to demand better work conditions and a decent salary.

Widening of inequalities between the West and peripheral South-East

But above all, the Covid-19 pandemic risks deepening persistent inequalities between West and South-East of Europe, reinforcing the peripheral status of the latter.

Indeed, countries in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe are already among the poorest and most unequal on the continent. While in 2016, the top 20% of the EU population with the highest income received on average 5.2 times as much income as the bottom 20%, this ratio was 6.3 in Latvia and Italy, 6.6 in Greece and Spain, 7.0 in Romania, 7.1 in Lithuania and 8.2 in Bulgaria. Compared to 2008, Bulgaria registered the largest increase of income inequality, from 6.5 in 2008 to 8.2 in 2017 (+1,7), followed by Italy (+1,1), Spain and Lithuania (+1). Moreover, these rates hide deep regional differences within the countries. In Hungary, unemployment benefit regulations will remain the strictest within the EU, totalling to only a maximum of 3 months. According to NGO and social workers, the crisis is expected to hit the most deprived regions and already impoverished groups the hardest. Poor households in rural Hungary, many of them being Roma and thus already suffering from stigmatization, have no savings to cope with the coming months. Almost 30% of poor children cannot access education, since schools were shut down and classes moved online while many households have no access to electricity. It is expected that workers’ rights will erode further during and after the crisis, due to continuing flexibilization of labour legislation, the workfare policies of Fidesz privileging the upper middle class to the detriment of the poor and Orban’s right to rule by decree for an indeterminate period of time.

In order to maintain their comparative advantage on European markets, the poorest countries of the region such as Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania or Serbia keep local wages and conditions of work traditionally low. The pandemic worsened even this mechanism. In the past, these countries imported cheap labour from non-EU neighbour countries such as Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, where wages were even lower. But since the outcome of the Covid-19 crisis, and the closing of the Schengen borders, these sources of cheap workforce tarnished. Instead of increasing wages or domestic workers, the crisis risks maintaining them low. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania allowed travel among the three nations beginning Friday May 15, though travellers from outside the region will be required to spend 14 days in quarantine.

While the Bulgarian trade union confederation Podkrepa protested in April against the EU lifting policies on circulation of seasonal workers during the Covid-19 crisis, it made no mention of the conditions of the local farming sector. Since the 1990s, welfare state and social guarantees in the area have been drastically reduced. In Serbia, workers of the Hyundai factory in Niš went on strike in March because the management ordered them to work despite the fact that work conditions did not meet safety regulations. On April 8, the management offered them 1,000 dinars (8.50 €) bonus per day plus a weekly bonus of 2 000 and monthly bonus of 3 000 dinars if they make their shift. In Belarus, the economic measures to alleviate the predicted recession (-4% of GDP as per World bank) adopted  on April 24 include deferral of the tax, rent and debt payments for the second and third quarter of 2020. Individual entrepreneurs are offered tax refunds for the period of inactivity. But while the labour market is further flexibilized (employers obtained the right to change work conditions upon a one-day notice and transfer employees to another position or sign contracts for up to three months), there is no economic relief for the workers. In a country where short-term contract systems and low unemployment protection policies were dominant even before the crisis (over 90% of the employees have one to five year contracts), it is expected that it will be further flexibilized during the next months.

The Covid-19 pandemic could thus enforce negative trends already under way before the outbreak of the virus, and the workers at the periphery of Europe (independently of their EU member status) could pay the price of their country’s peripheral position, having to choose between staying unemployed or exposing themselves to more dangerous working conditions home or abroad, putting their families and local communities at a greater risk.

Opportunity to improve migrant’s rights

Individual entrepreneurs are offered tax refunds for the period of inactivity. But while the labour market is further flexibilized, there is no economic relief for the workers.

But the Covid-19 epidemic could also become an opportunity to reconsider business models, EU cohesion strategies and immigration policies.

At this point, it is almost impossible to anticipate how migration policies in Europe will evolve in the long run. Until now, it almost entirely focused on attracting high-skilled workers to the EU. But the crisis of Covid-19 reminded us that migrants were essential to our economy and societies.

It already led to reconsidering priorities for key sectors and to including low-skilled labour such as seasonal workers in the agro-food industry. When it comes to working conditions, the lockdown measures focused mainly on ensuring health protection and social distancing, which proved challenging to implement.

But some of the countries most affected by the labour shortage of seasonal workers are already pushing for change in immigration policies. The Italian Minister for Agriculture Teresa Bellanova (Italia Viva party), recently stated that in times of Coronavirus, "we truly realize that it is we who need the immigrants", rather than them who need us. In mid-March, she called for the immediate regularisation of 600 000 undocumented workers in agriculture and the care sector with temporary residence permits of six months (renewable for another six months), "in order to get the economy moving again."

While such proposals are strongly opposed by the far-right in several European countries, some of them are already shifting their position. While two years ago, the right-wing Austrian government introduced measures that reduced the family allowance for many of Eastern European workers, now it offers bonus payments for those care workers who stay longer.

Following the Teresa Bellanova push for regularisation of undocumented migrants, the Italian government established that all expiring residence permits (including for seasonal work) are extended until 15 June 2020. Sweden has announced a 12-month extension to several labour market integration programmes for migrants, in order to keep them in the economy. Portugal recognised the validity of documents handed to all those migrants who have applied for a permit to stay until at least July 1, especially in healthcare, agriculture, and public assistance, evoking the possibility of regularisation.

Broadening international cooperation

If uncertainty about labour supply continues, it may encourage politics and agricultural producers across Europe to cooperate more closely and rethink their business models by raising wages and improving labour rights in order to guarantee decent living conditions and attract workers.

The Italian Minister for Agriculture Teresa Bellanova (Italia Viva party), recently stated that in times of Coronavirus, "we truly realize that it is we who need the immigrants", rather than them who need us.

It can be expected that trade unions, NGOs and European federations will step in to strengthen labour and migrant rights, reversing the trends that have dominated social policies across Europe since the 1980s. In a globalised era, it might even push for international unionization of migrant workers in Europe and neighbour countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Russia, Morocco and Tunisia. The Bulgarian trade union Podkrepa demanded in an open letter on March 31, that the Bulgarian government either stops workers from leaving the country (through a minimal basic income during the crisis), or pressurizes receiving countries into protecting the economic rights and health of workers, and not sending them back to Bulgaria before the crisis ends.

According to the EU Labour Force Survey for Eurostat (2018), on average, 13% of key workers are immigrants. Considering the fact that their access to social benefits is often very limited, they bring a positive net balance to the State. In Portugal, it amounts 651 million euros, contributing 746.9 million while receiving only 95.6 million in benefits. What in the past was a matter of injustice, could thus turn out to be one of the main factors contributing to extending migrants’ rights. But while the share of immigrant key workers fluctuates around 20% in countries such as Italy, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Austria and rocketing in Ireland (26%), Cyprus (29%) and Luxembourg (53%), it is close to zero in Eastern European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia. The change in migration policies will thus probably come from Western and Southern Europe. As extra-EU workers are over-represented in key sectors and tend to have lower education (especially in countries such as Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece), the change in EU immigration policies is expected to start here.

On 9 April, Food Drink Europe and the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions produced joint sectoral guidelines, designed to identify the minimum safety requirements for food workers during this health crisis.

On 16 April, thirty EU organisations co-signed a joint statement calling for urgent measures and structural reforms to address the impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic on EU agriculture and agri-food workers. It called on the EU Commission to address as "a matter of urgency" the situation of agri-food workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that the working and living conditions of many labourers along the food supply chain that contribute to cope with the Covid-19 crisis, and in particular in agriculture, are "generally sub-standard". It advocates several actions: improving the working and living conditions of labourers along the food supply chain that transform the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to make it both socially and environmentally sustainable, extending policies to farm workers and not only farmers; encouraging national governments to grant permits to migrant and refugee workers; improving the functioning of work permit routes for non-EU migrants to reach Europe and rolling out mandatory EU legislation on human rights and environmental due diligence. On May 1, trade unions in Belgium called for the regularisation of undocumented migrants in order to improve their social and health situation and to fill vacant positions in agriculture and agro-food industry, tourism, health care and transports.

However, precautions that companies should put in place are not obvious. Adding to that the unfavourable design of some factory lines and agricultural harvesting procedures, it will be challenging to enforce them. As Europe enters a steep economic crisis with structural unemployment, it will be particularly challenging to keep prices affordable for consumers.


Copyright: Daniel ROLAND / AFP


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