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.