“Beyond borders, beyond exploitation”

Promoting solutions to protect seasonal migrant workers within the EU

, by Diana Radoi, Estefania Lawrance Crespo, Julia Natri

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

“Beyond borders, beyond exploitation”
Strawberries are considered “red gold” in Spain, the largest strawberry exporting country. Photo: Canva Lisence

In Spain, the biggest strawberry export country in Europe, strawberries are called “the red gold” since this industry was worth 1,69 billion euros in 2021. The region of Huelva produces 80 percent of the production in Spain. In 2022, 16.000 Moroccans left their country for Spain to earn enough money to live a decent life for the rest of the year.

However, this year there has been an increase of 1.000 Moroccan female workers according to “Comisiones Obreras” (Workers’ Commission) one of the most representative Spanish syndicates, and the prospect for the future indicates that there is going to be a continuous increase of this number. In the past, when Eastern European countries like Romania or Bulgaria were not part of the EU, there was significant immigration to Spain from those areas. Although until 2012 there were 800.000 Romanians who were working in Spain, the number dropped to 500.000, which is why farm owners are now shifting their attention to EU third country immigrants.

Most of the seasonal workers, to save every euro, choose to live in the accommodations provided by the owners in the middle of the farm. These accommodations are often made up of a block of concrete house with a roof made of slate. Many of these houses do not have toilets or running water. Workers are forced to live in badly isolated crowded spaces.

In Morocco, the minimum wage is 300 euros per month and women struggle to find employment. The National Agency for the Promotion of Employment (ANAPEC) is a Moroccan government agency that handles hiring and acts as a liaison between Spanish employers and Moroccan women workers. Specifically, this agency selects female applicants for seasonal workers visas since they can demonstrate their attachment to their country by having young children who depend on them. Besides, they meet the criteria that Spanish businessmen have requested: young women (25 to 40 years of age), with experience in farm work and who are in good health.

Working in a farm in Europe where seasonal workers can earn from 800 to 1500 euros per month, depending on the working hours, is an attractive offer for them. But along with the hard conditions, these women at times face sexual harassment. Many female workers on the strawberry fields tried to report the persuasion of the farm owners, but they were often fired and sent back to Morocco.

Historically, farm workers were the youth and retired people that needed to supplement their pension. Today, these national workers have abandoned the countryside to go to the cities. Those who remain are farm owners and they mostly employ immigrants.“- Vicente Jimenez Sanchez, confederal secretary for the Strategic Transitions and Territorial Development Department at the Spanish Union “Comisiones Obreras”

This is a recurring pattern in Europe: because of the shortage of local employees in the agricultural sector, migrant seasonal workers are being called to replace them. The 2021 report of Migrant seasonal workers in the European agricultural sector shows that Germany receives around 300,000 workers, especially from Poland, and Romania. In the case of the berry harvest season in Sweden, there are about 3000 to 5000 migrant workers that arrived in the Scandinavian country through intermediate agencies mostly from Thailand. Polish agriculture relies on Ukrainian workers, while France employs 276,000 immigrants with a large share of the permits issued going to Moroccan nationals. In Italy, 370,000 migrants from 155 countries are employed in agriculture, accounting for 27 % of the legal agricultural workforce. Overall, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million seasonal workers are officially hired each year in the EU, mainly in the agriculture sector.

The agricultural sector faces major problems in Europe and is in need of urgent reforms, both on a European and national level." says Enrico Somaglia, deputy general secretary of the European Federation of Food Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT).

One practical measure is to ensure that workers have access to information regarding their rights and the tools they have to get them respected. EFFAT recently launched the website Season@Work, a platform that provides information on topics such as work contracts, wages, safety and health at work, and social protection. It also aims to promote communication with migrant seasonal workers and put them in contact with local unions. For the moment, Season@Work is developed for 8 countries and in 11 languages, including Spanish, Romanian, Arabic and Portuguese.

According to Aura Plesca, consultant of Faire Mobilität, many workers face violations because there are no controls by labor protection institutions. Most of these institutions have a few employees who fail to carry out sufficient checks. That is why it is important that the state also ensures that the rights of employees are respected by investing in these institutions.

The app is designed to protect workers from exploitation and abuse by informing them about their rights.

Legal measures at the EU level

Moreover, legal reform is needed across the European Union to ensure safe working conditions for migrant seasonal workers. In 2021, EFFAT presented a series of demands, asking for the prohibition of subcontracting in certain sectors such as the meat sector, where subcontracting is used to cut costs and avoid employer liability. Seasonal workers also need to have full social security coverage, which would require a cross-border coordination tool such as the European Social Security Pass that includes a European Social Security Number to ease the portability of social security rights and benefits when changing countries.

Another way to ensure safe working conditions for seasonal workers is to focus on the money that farmers receive from the European Union, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As the name indicates, the CAP is a series of laws adopted by the EU to provide a unified policy on agriculture in all EU countries. In 2021, the CAP accounted for 33.1% of the EU budget. Farmers in Europe receive subsidies through the CAP in exchange for meeting certain criteria that have been agreed on in the EU. Previously, the conditionality of the CAP has been related to things such as the quality of the soil, the protection of biodiversity, or the protection of calves and pigs. This year, for the first time, the new CAP strategic plan for 2023-2027 includes social conditionality as a key principle, which means farmers must meet basic standards in terms of employment as well as health and safety of their workers in order to receive the money. According to EFFAT, social conditionality is not only fair, but also an effective tool to raise labor standards in one of the most precarious sectors of the economy. The money received from the CAP is an important economic help for farmers, as Vincente Jimenez Sanchez, Confederal secretary for the Strategic Transitions and Territorial Development Department at the Spanish Union “Comisiones Obreras”explains:

The CAP pays me in subsidies 30,000 euros every year as an agricultural owner of a land. If I fail to comply with the law prohibiting the prevention of workplace risks or if I have unregulated employees on my land I could see my subsidy reduced by half because of the social conditionality. I could be left with 25,000 or 20,000 euros due to the violation of the workers’ rights..“

But for the social conditionality to be effective, member states need to ensure frequent inspections and proportionate sanctions in cases where farmers do not respect the standards. Unfortunately, austerity measures have led to a decrease of inspections, according to Enrico Somaglia from EFFAT, who thinks that “the EU Commission needs to take the role of coordinating the establishment of this social conditionality”. While this social conditionality tool could be interesting if further developed, it will only become binding in 2025. In the meantime, more effort to protect seasonal migrant workers rights needs to be established. That partly goes through more protective migration rights for the workers, which is something Spain has been working on.

Migrant workers need to be protected by inclusive migration rights laws at EU level

The labor market reform of 2022 in Spain spearheaded by Yolanda Diaz, Minister of Labor and Social Economy, has provided Moroccan women workers with a novelty by enabling them to enter Spain with a discontinuous fixed contract. That means more stability and security for the seasonal migrant workers. A four-year work permit will be issued to them, allowing them to work in Spain for a total of nine months per year. If the return to their country of origin is done when the work period is through, that permission may be extended for another four years or changed to a permit that allows them to live and work legally in Spain for two years. All together the Immigration Law’s regulation underwent revisions that made it simpler to hire foreign nationals, marking another advancement for the seasonal migrant workers from outside of the Schengen area. The European Migration policy therefore becomes a key factor to protect workers’ conditions.

Because of the inconsistencies in the immigration legislation, a sizable number of foreigners who work in Spain’s agricultural farms and reside there do so without proper documentation. Due to their vulnerability, they are willing to work in more risky conditions and for lower salary. And it is under these circumstances that labor exploitation occurs. For this reason, it is essential that the fundamentals be regulated in order to guarantee everyone’s labor rights and allow these people to work.

says Vicente Jimenez Sanchez, confederal secretary for the Strategic Transitions and Territorial Development Department at the Spanish Union “Comisiones Obreras”. Will the European Union be able to tackle this problem efficiently and sustainably? While Spain takes on the role of leadership of the Council of the European Union, it is a question worth asking.

This article is part of the project "Newsroom Europe" which trains young Europeans from three EU Member States (Germany, Sweden and Spain) in critical and open-minded media reporting and on the functioning of European decision-making. The project is carried out jointly by the Europäische Akademie Berlin e.V., the National Museums of World Culture Sweden, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Spain, and is also co-financed by the European Union.

Project partners “Newsroom Europe”

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