The EU Must Do More to End the Exploitation of Seasonal Workers

By Eve Geddie,
Programmes Director at PICUM.

The debate on migration to the EU has been very much focused on death at sea, mainly in the Mediterranean, as Europe deliberates how to control migration while ensuring rights.

However, the crisis facing EU’s migration regime is not limited to its borders.

Often missing from these media reports and political statements of solidarity is the fact that the EU is crying out for cheap, temporary and flexible labour; that there are limited channels to allow that labour to come; and that our policies deny rights and protections to those that do.

The more conscientious consumers among us are aware of the exploitation of seasonal workers.

We’ve seen reports about deplorable living conditions of those manning southern Europe’s greenhouses, and were outraged when striking Bangladeshi strawberry pickers were shot at on a Greek farm.

While these cases often stir up consumer distrust in Manoladan strawberries, Almerian tomatoes or Calabrian oranges, exploitation of migrant workers is not limited to one region or product.

The ‘Fair Trade’ logo is easy to spot while browsing our supermarket aisles, yet it applies to imported products only.

There is a presumption that labour rights are a given in the EU. That workers are empowered. That trade is just.

But the truth is, that while the EU is a leading importer of Fair Trade products, we are among the leaders in the unfair trade of human labour.

What allows such massive exploitation to take place within countries and communities where labour rights are often taken for granted?

Take Sweden, for example. Renowned for its admirable labour protections and work-life balance, and yet it is ranked number two on the blacklist of the Thai Labour Campaign, just ahead of Libya.

This summer, almost 6,000 Thai workers, mainly subsistence rice farmers, were recruited by Swedish agencies offering well-paid jobs as berry pickers. Charged €800 by these agencies, and subject to further deductions for accommodation, transport and food, only four in ten of these pickers made any profit after months of hard labour. The majority ended up in debt.

The conditions governing the entry and employment of non-EU seasonal workers enable such exploitation to flourish.

Policies are generally designed to control migrant workers rather than protect their workplace rights.

The disempowerment and discrimination of low-wage, foreign workers may yield short-term profits for suppliers and consumers, but is highly damaging to the labour market as a whole.

EU Directive on Seasonal Work

Ensuring equal pay for equal work is more important than ever. In this regard the EU Directive on Seasonal Work marks a triumph.

It recognises that the protections afforded to European workers mean nothing if we enable pay discrimination, low wages and insalubrious conditions for imported workers.

However, ensuring that all non-EU workers can benefit from improved conditions has been more difficult to reach agreement upon at policy level.

The highly politicised nature of the current immigration debate has meant that, despite the best efforts of the dedicated European parliamentarians behind this directive, the text does not ensure protection and rights to the countless undocumented migrant workers engaged in seasonal employment across the European Union.

The call by civil society organisations for a ‘bridge’ to regularise non EU-workers who had become undocumented due to exploitation within the sector were not upheld in the final negotiation stages.

Concerns about immigration have once again shadowed the more important question. There are significant concerns about labour shortages in the seasonal work sectors. Producers themselves have identified anti-migrant sentiment and populist scapegoatingas the biggest threat to productivity in Europe’s fields.

One of more memorable rebukes to the myth that migrant workers undercutting pay and conditions was made by the workers themselves. Take Our Jobs! was a nationwide campaign launched by the United Farm Workers of America in 2010.

Inviting citizens and legal residents to replace them in the field, these farm workers offered support and assistance to connect the unemployed with farm employers.

The website,, even provides an application form for interested candidates. Unsurprisingly, the take up was rather low. The total number of applicants was just three.

Rights for all workers

Sporadic reports on border deaths in Lampedusa or labour exploitation in Manolada are often the only glimpse we get into the world of those coming to Europe to seek better opportunities.

While there is growing support among EU leaders for a “change of approach towards migration,” as the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström said during a press conference on the recent Lampedusa tragedy,  the need for openness and solidarity extends far beyond the meeting rooms of Brussels, or the search and rescue operations conducted along the Mediterranean.

Trade unions are essential to ensuring the rights and protections for all workers in practice, be these national, foreign, temporary, and undocumented.

While the directive grants seasonal workers the right to join a trade union, this right will only be effective if the unions are actively reaching out to workers.

If the rights in the directive are to be realised, unions must actively engage non-EU workers; inform them of their rights and their employers’ obligations and educate their affiliates about the importance of supporting these workers.

Moving forward, the unions have a vital role in identifying gaps, unintended policy outcomes and emerging areas of concern.

A report on the situation of berry pickers in Sweden noted that “the Swedish model of industrial relations has certain perhaps surprising weaknesses, especially when it comes to protecting the rights of a transnational migrant workforce in the face of attempts to exploit them in a condition of essentially forced labour”.

The fact that this exploitation occurred in one of the best organised labour markers of the EU raised the troubling question: “If Sweden cannot prevent such extreme forms of labour abuse occurring within its own highly regulated labour market, either by legal proscription or by the countervailing actions of an active civil  society and trade union movement, what possibilities exist to prevent the drift towards toward  forced labour for vulnerable migrant workers elsewhere in the European space?”

The battle for migrant workers’ rights is the battle for all workers’ rights.

It is precisely because they are often unpopular and subject to deplorable conditions that the unions need to embrace these workers, bring them within the fold and truly stop the ‘race to the bottom’ of labour rights and standards across the region.

This is essential in moving the protections and rights promised by the directive from paper to practice.

This blog first appeared on Equal Times on 11 December 2013.

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