COVID-19: agricultural workers left to face higher risks

This blog post was written by PICUM Advocacy Trainee Thomas MacPherson.At a time when people have been restricted from flying abroad for work, countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, Belgium, Austria and Ireland have chartered flights to bring in seasonal agricultural workers from Romania and other Eastern European countries. The German government, for example, brought in a special measure enabling 80,000 seasonal workers to enter the country throughout April and May, while the European Commission excluded third country seasonal labourers from the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU.

But while governments have made considerable efforts to ensure continued agricultural output – recognising such work as essential – measures to protect the workers from COVID-19 and ensure decent working conditions are hugely inadequate.

Working and living conditions of agricultural workers have long been substandard and ignored, with the agricultural sector being the most affected by workplace accidents and illness. The current crisis has simply added to the risks in terms of health and safety and exploitation. This prompts the question: How can we fail to protect the health of those harvesting the food that keeps us healthy?

Buses taking Romanian agricultural workers to airports have been at full capacity, workers were crowded together in airports without face masks in order to catch chartered flights, and once at their destination farms they often have to work, eat, sleep and wash next to each other. In some cases, passports were confiscated.

Undocumented agricultural workers already living in Manolada, Greece, are also facing even more precarious conditions than “usual”, if the situation can be described as such. They typically live in shacks of 10-20 people and have no running water, forcing them to catch rainwater for makeshift showers and toilets, while the floors of their shacks quickly turn to mud when it rains. All of these are health hazards in normal times, but they pose an even greater threat with the current risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, some employers do not have sufficient masks or gloves for their employees.

These conditions are much like those in southern Spain, where over 10,000 migrants, many undocumented, are estimated to be living in informal settlements in the autonomous regions of Almería, Huelva and Murcia. The settlements, located right next to the greenhouses in which many of the migrants work, consist of shelters made with waste materials, including wood and plastic from the greenhouses. Some people even live in warehouses used for the storage of agricultural products. There is no water, gas or electricity supply, nor any sanitation facilities. Although the government is now sending a water truck to the settlements on a daily basis, residents have to walk up to four kilometres to the nearest water point or town if they miss it, which is not improbable as they may be at work. Walking such distances for water or to seek support from local organisations also poses the risk of being apprehended by police for “non-essential” travel and referred to immigration authorities. As in Manolada, these workers work side-by-side on farms, and are not being provided protective equipment by their employers.

The lack of protective measures by employers means NGOs are having to step in. In April, Fundación Cepaim, Almería Acoge, Médecins du Monde and the Red Cross signed a protocol dividing measures among themselves to protect residents of informal settlements in Almería. Among others, these measures include: distributing hygienic and disinfection kits to residents; covering basic needs (food and other essentials) of residents; keeping a day-care centre open for the most vulnerable cases; making themselves available to carry out rapid testing for COVID-19 among residents; offering personal protection equipment, as well as materials needed to protect those who test positive; providing temporary accommodation for asymptomatic people who test positive for COVID-19; monitoring the health of the persons temporarily accommodated; and providing food and medicine for persons at risk.“In Huelva, I met with workers living in a migrant settlement in conditions that rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world. They are kilometers away from water, and live without electricity or adequate sanitation. Many have lived there for years and can afford to pay rent, but said no one will accept them as tenants”

Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, February 2020Aware that their employees are largely excluded from social protection, in severe poverty and have limited recourse or possibilities to organise, some employers are exploiting migrant workers’ dependence on these jobs. Even Romanian and other EU agricultural workers are facing abuses such as deductions from their pay if they miss work because they are unwell. Since their flights were organised by their employers, they also feel trapped if they want to leave.

With agricultural workers – and therefore their health – being recognised as essential, the crisis represents an opportunity for politicians to demonstrate this by regularising their work. But, as the ETUC has pointed out, measures such as the granting of a two-year work permit to third country nationals aged between 18 and 21 in Spain (those already in Spain on a regular basis) and the regularisation of undocumented agricultural workers in Italy – while crucial steps in the right direction – have been criticised for focusing largely on safeguarding the food supply, not investing enough in the dignity and conditions of the workers, and not addressing structural reasons for irregularity and exploitation in the long run. As one worker put it, “people are worth more than aubergines and courgettes.”

Centring workers’ rights will also be crucial in the implementation of EU’s recently published A Farm to Fork Strategy: for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system’. A positive development is its recognition of the importance of workers’ social protection, working and housing conditions, as well as protection of health and safety, in building fair, strong and sustainable food systems. There are, nevertheless, concerns over the lack of specific actions in the draft action plan to realise these goals; integrating efforts to ensure decent work into the existing actions must be a priority.

It’s long overdue that governments address the scandalous conditions that many in the agricultural sector endure. In the face of these adverse conditions, workers and civil society organisations continue to mobilise and, in some countries, governments are also taking action.

27 organisations – including the European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism sectors, the Open Society European Policy Institute, Oxfam, PICUM and Slow Food Europe – issued a joint statement calling on the EU and Member States to mobilise additional funding, ensure better conditions for agricultural workers regardless of residence status, and carry out policy reforms.

Italy adopted a temporary measure to regularise agricultural, domestic and care workers.

In Greece, Generation 2.0 continues its “Manolada Watch”, monitoring the situation of migrant agricultural workers in the area.

In Spain, Fundación Cepaim, Almería Acoge, Medecins du Monde and the Red Cross signed a protocol to protect residents of informal settlements in Almería; local union activists and civil society have been bringing supplies to migrants in informal settlements with crowdfunding support from Ethical Consumer; The Collective of African Workers is campaigning for an end to the shanty towns in Lepe settlement, Huelva; and a coalition of 27 NGOs is calling for regularisation of migrant farm workers and proper protection from COVID-19.

In the UK, FLEX issued a briefing calling on employers to provide personal protective equipment and the UK government to extend the visas of those working under the Seasonal Workers Pilot.

In Ireland, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland has called for health and safety measures in the agri-food industry to be upheld.

In Austria, the coalition is campaigning for fair working conditions for agricultural workers and recognition of migrants’ roles in this essential work.