Some of Europe’s poorest citizens have been recognized as its critical workers.
Amid a pandemic that has grounded passenger flights and closed borders among EU countries, seasonal agriculture workers from Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe have been among the few still allowed to board a plane and travel abroad for work.
“Seasonal workers are critical to the agricultural sector in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions, especially in the current season,” the European Commission said at the end of March, calling on EU countries to ensure they can travel smoothly, after “proportionate health screening.”
But with hundreds of them packed in buses on the way to Romanian airports and made to share rooms on the farms where they pick asparagus in Germany, some have suggested that Eastern Europeans’ health is less important than Western Europe’s food supplies.
“When seasonal workers are going to start dying, who will be held responsible?” asked Ramona Duminicioiu of the Romanian association Eco Ruralis, which represents Romanian peasants.
“Why can’t [the Germans] pick their own asparagus?” — Ramona Duminicioiu
Romanians’ hard work under tough conditions that Western European farmers have come to rely on is nothing new, Duminicioiu said. It’s just that their travel in times of a pandemic has made their situation more visible.
“I don’t know if the European Union is able to give up on this development model based on the work of the poor,” she said. The inability of the bloc to ensure that there are no second-class citizens is its “biggest failure,” she added.
Experience + acceptance of hard work = ideal seasonal worker
“Why can’t [the Germans] pick their own asparagus?” Duminicioiu wondered.
Idled by the pandemic, some have tried.
Germany, the U.K. and France have called on people who worked in restaurants or other sectors impacted by the pandemic to go farm for their nations. But the low take-up and the newcomers’ lack of experience made German and English farmers turn back to their Eastern European workers.
The Romanians who come year after year tend to be from the country’s rural population — so they’re used to agricultural work and are eager to earn more than they could at home.
The average net wage in Romania was around €650 per month in January. But Romanian villagers can make at least double that for a month’s worth of work on fields abroad.
The Eastern European workers “are a critical part of making sure that we can put affordable food on people’s plates,” said Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the U.K.’s National Farmers’ Union. That’s because they understand the nature of the job “and they bring the productivity with them because of that experience,” he said.
They’ll be a key part of trying to train the local recruits, he said, given that Britain needs around 70,000 farm workers this summer to harvest crops of cucumbers, lettuce, broad beans, herbs and soft fruit.
German farmers echoed the argument.
“In general, German farmers are looking for skilled workers, who in the best case have years of work experience,” said a spokesperson for the German farmers’ association DBV. “A lot of the seasonal workers are exactly that.”
What fewer farmers would admit is the equally important reason behind their preference for workers from Eastern Europe: They accept hard-working conditions such as long hours and almost no days off, even on weekends.
“Harvesting asparagus is not easy. It’s 10 to 12 hours of hard work per day,” said Ariane Amstutz, spokeswoman for the State Farmers’ Association Baden-Württemberg, in Germany. “It’s something not everyone is able to do.”
A 21-year-old woman from southwestern Romania, who declined to be named in this article, knows it all too well. She’s been going to pick asparagus in Germany since she turned 18. On Friday, she boarded a chartered plane from Bucharest heading to a farm in the Bavarian town of Rain.
“If you cry and say you can’t do it anymore, they don’t trust us.” — Anonymous seasonal worker
You have to be on all fours to be able to pick it in the field, she told POLITICO. She requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from her intermediary — whom she pays €200 per contract — if she criticizes work conditions.
She expects to be paid €9.35 an hour — the minimum wage in Germany — but that’s only if she hits the required target of picking 23 kilograms of asparagus in that time. If she doesn’t, the pay is lower, she said.
She has been in touch with some of her friends who left to work on the same farm three weeks before her. They say they work more than the 12 hours legally allowed.
The work starts at 5 a.m. and includes 15-minute breaks at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 4 p.m., she said. Her friends said they stop at around 11 p.m.
Saying “no” is not an option, she notes, because the farmers can dock €50 from their pay if, say, they refuse to go to work because they’re too tired or unwell.
“If you cry and say you can’t do it anymore, they don’t trust us,” she said. “They say we need to work, because that’s what they brought us there for.”
The airplane doors are open
Germany’s powerful farmers lobbied the government to allow these workers into the country, despite entry restrictions imposed on foreigners to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
In early April, Berlin introduced an exception allowing 40,000 seasonal workers to come into the country that month and another 40,000 in May.
For its part, Bucharest had shut down all passenger flights to and from Germany by that time, but decided to make an exception for chartered flights for seasonal workers to leave Romania.
A few days later, thousands of them crammed in front of the airport in the western city of Cluj, ready to board 13 flights to Germany. The images of the crowd, with no social distancing or face masks, caused uproar around the country.
Those workers had traveled in buses from different parts of Romania, including from Suceava County, which was under a full lockdown because of the high number of coronavirus cases.
Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban said the situation was unacceptable and demanded an investigation, the national public broadcaster reported. Speaking on TV later that day, however, he said the government had no legal means to stop its citizens from going to work abroad.
Given that the pandemic in Romania led to the suspension of one million work contracts and the cancellation of a further 300,000, Orban added, his government wasn’t in a position to deny work abroad to its citizens. He estimated 80,000 to 90,000 people may go abroad to work.
From April 9 to 23, some 14,700 Romanians left the country on chartered flights, the Romanian border police told POLITICO.
The German government has asked farmers to pick up the workers from the airport and take them to the farms.
Asked whether Berlin put pressure on Bucharest to allow seasonal workers to travel, Orban’s chief of staff Ionel Dancă echoed his boss.
“What pressure can the government of one state put when we’re talking about the rights of Romanian citizens who want to work,” he said.
Dancă likened the chartered flights for farm workers to those his government helped organize to bring Romanians back from quarantined areas in other parts of the world.
“In both cases, we care about our citizens and we respect their rights,” he told POLITICO.
The barracks’ doors are shut
For now, countries such as Germany and the U.K. insist that safety protocols are followed.
“There are stringent health checks at either end” of the flight, said Glenn Phillips, from the air charter service that brought workers into the U.K. Passengers were spaced one seat or an aisle apart on a flight that landed in Britain on April 19, he added.
The German government has asked farmers to pick up the workers from the airport and take them to the farms, where they may work as long as they’re separated from other groups for 14 days.
They can’t leave the host farm during that period, and their accommodation can’t exceed 50 percent of normal capacity, according to the measures adopted by the German government. These rules also require farm workers to keep their distance from each other while working or be provided with face masks, gloves and protective plastic gowns if distance isn’t possible.
If a worker is suspected of being infected with coronavirus, that person should be isolated and tested by a doctor. That worker’s team should also be isolated and tested, according to the government rules.
The German government also made public demonstrations of its support. Earlier this month, Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner welcomed the “helpers” with chocolate Easter bunnies.
“The first helpers have now landed, which is a good day for the industry, but also for us consumers who are supplied by the farmers,” she said in mid-April.
But some unions say that the safety rules get short shrift.
Szabolcs Sepsi, a team leader at the Fair Mobility project of the German Trade Union Confederation, said that while seasonal workers are quarantined away from the German population, they don’t distance from each other.
Romanian media have reported that some asparagus pickers claim they have to work close together and wear the same face mask for five days.
“In this so-called quarantine, it doesn’t seem to matter that thousands of people have traveled without maintaining social distance and that hundreds will work, eat, sleep and wash next to each other,” he told Deutsche Welle.
The conditions imposed by the German government to avoid the spread of the coronavirus may leave workers defenseless. They have no way of returning home on their own since the flights are organized by their employers, points out Enrico Somaglia, deputy general secretary of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT).
His organization wrote to the European Commission asking for decent housing conditions and proper health protection for the workers. Similar calls have come in recent weeks from other organizations, too.
Meanwhile, local Romanian media have reported that some asparagus pickers claim they have to work close together and wear the same face mask for five days. A woman from Suceava said her employer closed the farm gates and told people to say everything was fine if the police came to check. She works near Bad Krozingen, on a farm where a 57-year-old Romanian man died from coronavirus on April 11.
In response, the German agricultural workers’ trade union IG-BAU demanded a full investigation into the man’s death, noting that his infection was only detected post-mortem. Its deputy federal president, Harald Schaum, has said foreign workers should be given a contact number at the Fair Mobility project, where they can receive advice in their own languages.
Meanwhile, Romania’s ambassador to Germany, Emil Hurezeanu, called on seasonal workers on Friday to report all cases of abuse directly to the embassy, so his team could address them swiftly with their German counterparts.
Back in Romania, Eco Ruralis wants the government to make bilateral agreements about proper working conditions with other countries before letting its workers leave.
“The political environment is behaving like it’s business as usual,” the organization’s Duminicioiu said.
“For the Romanian state, it’s a dereliction of duty,” she said.