Miserable, crowded living conditions of Europe’s foreign farm workers put them at much greater risk. And they’re staying away.
In one of the many paradoxes of the new world we live in, Western European countries that have seen millions of jobs wiped out in a matter of weeks are now facing an acute shortage of agricultural laborers.
Farmers in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the UK and other parts of Western Europe have come to rely on huge numbers of cheap labor from Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, those workers are either no longer able to make it to the farms or are choosing to stay with their families in their home countries.
This is leading to an “alarming” shortage of farmhands, warns the EU in an as yet unpublished report. The report blames the shortage on two main factors:
- The restrictions on the movement of workers between EU countries to combat the spread of Covid-19;
- And the miserable, crowded living conditions in which many imported farm workers live, which put them at much greater risk of contracting the virus.
In Spain a record 900,000 workers dropped off Spain’s social security register of employees in the last two and a half weeks of March, yet farm associations are complaining that they’re short of over 100,000 workers to help pick the fruit, vegetables and tobacco that are now ready for harvest.
“Vineyards are paralyzed because there’s no one to install the conduction system; there are no day laborers to prune the olive trees or remove the weeds in the onion farms; there are not even enough hands to tie the garlic bundles”, says agricultural engineer Arturo Serrano. “All of these crops have work cycles that are governed by nature and cannot be postponed.”
In France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producer where food and rural life form an integral part of popular culture, the government’s rallying cry for local citizens to fill the labor gaps on the country’s farms appears to have been more successful. Some 240,000 freshly furloughed workers have already signed up for the government’s “Des bras pour ton assiette” (Arms for your plate) campaign, partly as a means to get out into the country and escape the confines of their home. Five thousand volunteers have already been put to work.
In the Southern Spanish region of Huelva, where many of the strawberries and other summer fruits are grown and picked, to be consumed in Western Europe, the living conditions on some farms are so deplorable they have been likened to modern-day slavery. In some cases the laborers, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, are not even provided with accommodation. Shunned by landlords in neighboring villages, they have little choice but to build makeshift shelters, which rapidly mushroom into shanty towns that have no access to running water or electricity.
Now, many of those workers have failed to turn up for the harvest season, leaving farmers little choice but to source their labor locally. The problem is that most locals don’t want to work on farms under those conditions anymore. Even in areas blighted with eye-watering levels of unemployment such as Huelva (24% before the virus crisis), many locals would prefer to stay on the dole or try to find work in industries that pay better — farmhands can be paid as little as €5 an hour, less than Spain’s legal minimum wage — and offer greater job security. Now, thanks to Covid-19, those slightly better paid, slightly more secure jobs no longer exist.
At the beginning of April, Spanish farm groups lobbied the government to make it legally possible for furloughed workers to work on farms near where they live and continue receiving their unemployment benefits. The government quickly obliged, meaning the farmers now have a new army of low-paid, taxpayer-subsidized workers at their disposal. But according to El Confidencial, the response has so far been disappointing. Not enough people have signed up and of those who have, many only last a day or two in the fields before throwing in the towel.
Spain is Europe’s fourth largest exporter of agricultural produce, behind the Netherlands, France and Germany. In 2018, those exports exceeded €50 billion. With the country’s all-important tourism industry on hold for the foreseeable future, these exports take on an even bigger role.
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