Are western Europe's food supplies worth more than east European workers' health?
Source: The Gaurdaian
Date: 16 Apr 2020
The coronavirus threat facing fruit and vegetable pickers flown in from quarantined Romania underlines Europe’s inequalities
White asparagus is late April’s delicacy across much of north-west Europe. In Germany the pale spears of the Spargel are cherished as “white gold”, their arrival each year marked by festivals and celebrations. But Germany alone needs 300,000 seasonal workers to harvest its crops. Over the past 10 years most of these workers have come from Romanian villages where seasonal migration is one of the few sources of income.
This spring, however, the asparagus harvest ran into a big problem: Romania’s militarised coronavirus lockdown, enforced by a state of emergency, with police and army patrols in the streets fining anyone caught out without a written statement from employers or doctors. People have been forced to accept a 10pm curfew.
And it seems to have worked to protect the Romanian health system from a tsunami of cases. Despite big numbers of Romanian migrant workers returning from Spain and Italy at the height of the pandemic in southern Europe, the rate of Covid-19 infection and death in Romania has remained broadly under control.
Until, that is, the imperatives of the asparagus supply chain kicked in. Pressed by German agriculture lobbies, the Berlin government asked the Romanian government to grant a bespoke exemption from the lockdown and clear an airbridge for farm workers.
The Romanian government agreed, admitting that it had no income support system for this group of workers, who are usually invisible to the media unless as an object of class-driven scorn. So the asparagus imperative trumped the pandemic, even though Germany had earlier banned foreign workers and the Romanian lockdown was about to be prolonged for a further month.
What followed was an epic stampede of thousands of workers to board low-cost flights specially chartered for the massive airbridge. Many had received their contracts on social media apps, others were raked in by able intermediaries, but all ended up crammed into the same nighttime bus rides to the airport. The ensuing images were shocking: a country in strict quarantine watched thousands streaming out of crammed busses into a small regional airport to board the planes. Given that many workers came from Suceava, Romania’s Covid-19 hotspot, we can only hope this will not turn out to have been one of Europe’s super-spreader events.
This German arrangement, a deal between German employers and the federal government to cover the asparagus season, has inspired food growers in the UK and Italy where the spring and early summer fruit and vegetable harvests are on the brink of collapse for lack of labourers. Special charter flights from Bucharest to the UK are this week taking hundreds of workers to British farms after a recruitment drive closer to home fell flat.
Many farm owners seem happier in any case to have rapid access to the “easterners”. In the words of one German farmer interviewed by the tabloid Bild: “Most Germans are not used to working stooped in the fields for hours on end. They complain about backache. Romanians and Poles are stronger and they work weekends and public holidays.”
It turns out that besides a steely back, the Romanians and Bulgarians also need to be so desperate for work they don’t dare ask for a pandemic wage premium even if the employer requires them to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, since switching farms will not be an option. For the duration of the contract they remain at the mercy of the employer, who alone has the power to organise the return journey.
German trade unions have denounced the pact and are demanding decent pay, working conditions and coronavirus protection measures. But when the Romanian workers take the virus back home with them or when their backs break, the German health service won’t have to look after them. German employers will send them back home before the 115-day exemption from social security contributions runs out.
The burden of any treatment will fall on the Romanian health system, the same one that has lost doctors and nurses to Germany and that is never likely to see a cent of the revenue generated by the sale of the crops.
Below the same radar of media and political attention, thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian women have headed to Austria’s assisted living homes, because it turns out that rather than resource social care properly, Austria prefers to farm out the job to cheaper easterners.
In many ways the asparagus cutters, salad pickers and care workers represent the most efficient form of labour in Europe: cheap, highly productive, untaxed even if humiliated and a potential public health hazard. Europe’s political economy has created the post-communist universal soldier, capable of converting from farm labourer to caregiver to construction worker as the the season changes. Freedom of movement has morphed into migration for survival and even that privilege is reserved for the physically fit.
At the end of the day the huddled masses from the planes heading to the fields of Germany or Italy can rely on neither their own country nor the European Union. This begs tough questions about what east Europeans have a right to expect after years of EU membership: is this it?
Why can we not demand a different Europe and renegotiate the social contract with it? Why is it so hard to guarantee the safety and the dignity of cross-border workers rather than reducing them to a dehumanised “labour supply” accessible with an app? Why does even the western left withdraw into fantasies about protected labour regimes while millions of east European workers toil under their noses? Why is the movement of millions of people in and out of quarantines, doing essential but undervalued work, not a European issue?
EU enlargement to the east gave millions of workers an opportunity to survive. But it is not a generous gift. Western Europe’s supply chains and essential social services rely on it.
• Costi Rogozanu is a Romanian political journalist based in Bucharest. Daniela Gabor is professor of economics and macrofinance at UWE Bristol