Why Migrant Farm Workers Are Living Four to a Caravan in a Time of Social Distancing

Even as governments halt nonessential travel, thousands of workers are being flown from Eastern Europe to pick farm produce in Britain. Housed several workers to a caravan and often paid below minimum wage, their experience shows how “flexible” seasonal hiring allows bosses to flout the most basic workers’ rights.

A farmworker harvesting kale on April 9, 2020. (Francois Nel / Getty Images)

In late March, claims that the COVID-19 pandemic risks inducing dwindling supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables were catapulted into the limelight. Farming businesses across Europe are now faced with the quandary of finding workers to harvest early crops at a time of state-imposed travel bans. Added to that are the pressures on intercontinental supply chains with border restrictions proliferating in Africa as well as scarcities of truck drivers and containers. In Kenya, a leading supplier of Europe’s green beans and peas, half of the workers involved in growing and exporting have been sent home as flights are grounded and freight prices rise. Despite efforts to open up “green lanes” to allow fresh produce to move rapidly across the EU’s borders, with each passing day the possibility of crops rotting in the fields gains credence — raising expectations about skyrocketing food prices. Faced with such dramas, agro-capital’s first port of call has become the flexible reserve army of Eastern European labor.

To unpack this conundrum — in which the seasonal migrant workforce constitutes the single internationally mobile section of Europe’s working classes — it’s worth looking back to the conference held by EU leaders on March 26. That day, the European Commission was asked to draw up guidelines guaranteeing that seasonal workers would be able to continue working, notwithstanding the lockdowns imposed across the continent. The joint statement emanating from this video call declared that the EU governments, partnering with the commission, were ready to address the problems of “cross-border and seasonal workers who have to be able to continue essential activities while avoiding the further spread of the virus.” Already, food sector employees are counted alongside health personnel as “critical” workers whose movement must not be hindered.

Similarly, in the immediate aftermath of the UK’s nationwide lockdown, farming organizations and recruitment agencies started voicing concerns that the enormous economic disruption — a fall in real GDP which the Office for Budget Responsibility currently estimates to reach around 35 percent in the second quarter alone — will be particularly detrimental to the sector. The National Farmers’ Union, the Association of Labour Providers, and the British Summer Fruits called on British residents to fill the jobs usually done by imported seasonal workers. In the words of the secretary of state for environment, George Eustice, “we need to mobilize the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months.”

Yet the solution of importing workers continues apace. Amid the lockdown, on April 9, the first batch of over two thousand Romanian workers gathered at Cluj International Airport to board chartered planes to Germany. While the alarming images from the airport, showing workers violating social distancing rules, prompted the resignation of its manager, police officers probed how workers managed to reach the airport despite roadblocks around Suceava — the center of Romania’s coronavirus outbreak — and the surrounding county. Six days later, G’s Fresh — a UK farming cooperative uniting seventeen growers — chartered a plane with 150 Romanian workers on board. This flight took off from Iași International Airport, ninety miles from Suceava. The Romanian workers who landed at London Stansted Airport on April 15 already started picking lettuce on a 7,000-hectare farm in East Anglia on Monday this week. In this grueling task, they were accompanied by 189 strawberry pickers from Bulgaria, transported to Dublin Airport upon the request of the Keelings company on the Ryanair-operated flight. While the aviation industry is reportedly studying the concept of “de-densification” — geared at limiting the spread of coronavirus by leaving the middle seat empty in each row — these flights all had no empty seats.

This situation well illustrates who is expected to take risks for coronavirus — and for whom quarantine isn’t a reality. Even if individual European governments have already embarked on decreasing the quarantine measures and are likely to continue to do so over the coming weeks, most middle-class Europeans will likely not set a foot further than a couple of miles from their homes. Yet this phase of privileged self-isolation will coincide with the arrival of armies of seasonal Eastern European workers — the very people making sure that these others are still fed.

Labor Shortages in the UK

Growers need to fill no less than eighty thousand job vacancies related to growing, harvesting, and packing fruits, vegetables, and edible horticulture. Doing so in a time frame of weeks rather than months and under lockdown conditions is no small task. According to the British Growers Association, this year some twelve thousand pickers will be required from mid-April to pick asparagus, salads, and lettuce. By May, demand will reach approximately thirty thousand people to pick strawberries and at least another ten thousand to pick soft fruits like raspberries. Later in the summer, the same amount will be needed to pick apples and pears.

Yet this recent shortage of agricultural labor exacerbates existing tribulations — resulting from chronic understaffing since the Brexit referendum, the falling pound, Home Secretary Priti Patel’s restrictive points-based immigration system, and the insufficiently expansive Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme that allows the import of up to ten thousand non-EU seasonal workers. Under these constraints, the UK farming industry, backed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, urged university students as well as recently laid-off and furloughed workers to join a new “land army” to pick and pack fruit and vegetables. As of April 20, the Alliance of Ethical Labour Providers received nearly fifty thousand expressions of interest in its “Feed the Nation” campaign to fill seasonal farm vacancies. Despite this impressive surge in interest, an extremely high attrition rate among workers has compromised the program’s success. Only six thousand of those contacted agreed to an interview, and nine hundred rejected the offered positions. Just 112 people have inked contracts thus far. Although additional hands might be deployed in the near future, sustaining the effort throughout an extended period of time is bound to be problematic. It is difficult to imagine keeping poorly remunerated and heavily exploited workforces on the agricultural fields in June when the lockdown is relaxed.

Seen from the above angle, the reasons for the low uptake of seasonal jobs by resident applicants should not be so surprising. Nor of course should they be attributed to the purported “laziness” on the part of the applicants. These farm jobs are located in specific regions, generally far from major towns and transport links. For those workers who do not drive or live in the area, this implies finding and paying for new accommodation on top of existing rent and mortgage payments. Although the vast majority of the employers provide accommodation for the seasonal workforce, this still means living on-site and, as a rule, in a caravan shared between three to four workers. When we consider the practicality of starting the job as early as six or seven in the morning when your children have to be taken to school later in the morning — or, as is the case now, homeschooled — the problems only multiply.

But there are also reports from those who have submitted multiple applications only to hear from the recruitment agencies about no more available spaces — in large part reflecting employers’ prioritization of already trained migrant labor. Shipping in seasonal “pickers” from Eastern Europe with knowledge of how to apply exacting supermarket standards in terms of fruit and vegetable appearance and size, as well as cutting and packaging techniques, is deemed a more cost-effective investment than training workforces anew.

Indeed, agro-capital’s thirst for migrant labor is predicated on employers’ ability to exploit this segment of the working class with relative ease. According to Sarah Boparan, chief executive of HOPS — the recruiter owned by the National Federation of Young Farmers, currently supporting the “Feed the Nation” campaign — farm work generally pays minimum wage, and there is a prospective bonus depending on one’s working pace. While the most experienced pickers may earn up to £10 per hour, this is conditional on them working six days a week and does not take into account accommodation-related deductions. Long hours, early starts (at three or four in the morning), and work under all weather conditions is the norm. Unmentioned, here, is the high incidence of piecework on British farms. A less sanguine picture emerges from “The Nature and Scale of Labour Exploitation Across All Sectors Within the United Kingdom” — the report published by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority in 2018. Detailing the horrific working conditions in UK agriculture, it reveals that throughout 2016 and 2017, seasonal workers from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Lithuania were frequently working fifteen-hour shifts and seven-day workweeks for less than the minimum wage — often not receiving pay slips (and wages) reflecting the hours actually worked. Added to this were the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions they faced living in caravans.

Operation Asparagus

If the demand for eighty thousand seasonal workers per year to harvest UK crops might seem daunting, the respective figure for Germany is around three hundred thousand. Over the past couple of weeks, it has experienced a shortage of seasonal harvesters of the “queen of vegetables” — the white asparagus, much-loved in Germany — which occupies around twenty-three thousand hectares of farmland. Initially, in a bid to contain the virus, the German government imposed an entry ban for seasonal workers — most of whom had, in previous years, arrived on commercial flights from Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. In response, Bild — Europe’s best-selling daily — entertained the possibility of drafting soldiers to help pick the vegetable. Seemingly, doing without a dinner with asparagus drenched in butter or with hollandaise sauce, schnitzel, and potatoes would be too much of an ask. While forty-two thousand volunteers signed up to a government scheme, the president of the German Farmers’ Association, Joachim Rukwied, warned that they could not risk entrusting the harvest to refugees and unemployed workers, given their lack of experience. Faced with the outcry from the agricultural lobby, on April 2 the German government lifted the ban on seasonal workers’ entry. Now, agricultural firms were allowed to import eighty thousand workers throughout April and May alone, working alongside twenty thousand previously unemployed and furloughed local workers as well as students and asylum seekers. It has been envisaged that seasonal workers from Eastern Europe would be flown in to avoid lengthy bus trips, would undergo a vigorous health check, and would be kept “quasi-quarantined” (living and working separately from other farmlands) for at least two weeks after arrival. But it was not long till the situation on the ground subverted the idyll.

The exploitative conditions faced by seasonal workers did, ultimately, appear on the German press’s radar — but only after a fifty-seven-year-old Romanian worker died from a COVID-19–related illness just two days after he reached Baden-Württemberg. Migrant workers’ testimonies about the recruitment process reveal that prior to leaving Romania, they had to pay a local company €100 as a way of guaranteeing their departure and an additional €140 for transport costs, to avoid deductions from wages earned in Germany. Moreover, employment contracts enable the employer to request the extension of the working day up to twelve hours and if necessary seven days a week. The minimum wage is set at €9.35 an hour, and the employer only pays out after the end of the contract. Seasonal workers do not receive health insurance — at least for the first 115 days. Nor can they opt out from the contract if the employer does not respect the agreement, as their return to Romania is coordinated centrally by employer representatives. The metonym of bondage here comes to reflect the juridical illusion of “free” wage labor.

This is to say nothing about employment conditions, which are just as atrocious. Reports from the field indicate that upon their arrival, Romanian workers are quarantined for one day only and subsequently forced to work fourteen hours a day — a hundred-hour workweek. Refusals to work in the cold or through Easter Saturday and Sunday translate into immediate redundancies. Several of those working without a contract have already been fired and thrown out on the streets. Not only is the seasonal worker expected to share one shower with nine of their compatriots, but it is also assumed that they will themselves clean these bathrooms. If they don’t, additional sums are deducted from their pay. According to one Romanian worker employed on the same field in the town of Bad Krozingen — southwest of Freiburg where his compatriot died — during the day the harvesters stand next to each other, and they are provided with a single mask to last for a week. The company’s doors are reportedly locked and monitored by bodyguards who intimidate workers to report that the conditions are fine in the case of police arrival. As for the sanitary conditions, soap is limited, the showers are shared, and the toilets have no locks. In response to such revelations, representatives from the German Trade Union Confederation in Saxony and the IG Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt (farmworkers’ union) called for employers to ensure that the health of seasonal migrant workers is protected, no deductions are made from wages, and accommodation is arranged in single rooms. At the time of writing, evidence suggests that large farms in Rhineland-Palatinate continue to transport migrant workforces in groups of forty to seventy people. Besides the employers’ failure to provide essential protective equipment such as masks, workers are forced to sleep in fully occupied multi-bed containers.

Transcending the Analytical Cul-De-Sacs

Such vignettes again articulate the deep-rooted patterns of exploitative relations governing migrant labor regimes in Europe. But understanding them properly demands a critical engagement with three frequently advocated lines of argumentation.

The first argument finds popularity among certain sections of the Western left and conceives of cross-border exploitation of the Eastern European (seasonal) migrant workforce as the sole responsibility of states and capitals in the “imperialist core.” Those arguments pay homage to the early attempts to flesh out a Marxist theory of international migration in the 1970s. One contributor to the debate, the Greek Marxist Marios Nikolinakos, posited that for the so-called sender countries — at this time meaning Southern Europe countries — migration allowed governments to export potential social disturbances arising from unemployment and thus averted threats of regime overthrow. Throughout their stay in the Western European metropoles, migrant laborers were said to familiarize with the prevailing parliamentary system, take up the lifestyles of the “native working class,” and become politically lethargic. Thus, the only positive effect of emigration arose from the remittances sent home. However, given that these latter further fed the increase in imports of consumer goods from those very countries in which emigrants live and work, in the final analysis, they have strengthened the positions of capital in the countries of immigration and the development policies of the ruling oligarchy in the “sender” countries.

While much can be learned from the above formulation, there are at least two problems with extending a similar logic to the current conjuncture. On the one hand, suggestions about migrant “depoliticization” can be questioned not only politically but also empirically. For instance, there is evidence to suggest that the ideas of the Nordic welfare model are transmitted to Estonian families precisely through the mechanism of migration. On the other hand, to portray the “West” as the sole dramatis personae in the Eastern European theatre of exploitation is too crude. In the wake of the eastward enlargement of the EU from the mid-2000s onward, the region’s employers resisted increasing workers’ wages. Instead, encountering accession-induced labor shortages at home, they lobbied actively to “import” cheap labor from third countries such as Moldova and Ukraine. In Romania, for example, the labor shortages produced by the massive outward migration to the EU are filled with echelons of labor from Vietnam, Turkey, Moldova, Nepal, and China. Similarly, most of the Ukrainian migrant workforce commute to Poland on a seasonal basis, with the latter country accounting for approximately two-thirds of Ukraine’s remittances (totaling $16bn in 2019).

In Estonia, where the countryside population is aging and residents have moved abroad, seasonal labor from Ukraine and other non-EU, post-Soviet countries serves to address the problem of labor shortages. Over the past couple of weeks, the emergency situation prompted the country’s far-right ministries of interior and rural affairs to argue for deporting non-EU migrant workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic or had their visas expire. It took the pressure of several farming organizations to compel the government to backtrack on this position. It seems that the thirst for seasonal migrant labor is just as unquenchable in East-Central Europe. Presently, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs Dmytro Kuleba is reviewing the requests from East-Central European governments that, he says, are “ready to pay for charter flights” and cover expenses related to documentation.

The second line of argumentation is reflected in UK left-of-center punditry celebrating the worthiness of seasonal Romanian workers. The migrant laborers’ capacity to save the harvest this year is perceived to represent a morality tale with regard to the “depressing” outcome of the 2016 referendum. In such discourses, the “heroic Romanians” now arriving on chartered flights are counterposed against the “lazy Brits” — a fallacy we already saw above. But what these virtuosos in pitting segments of the working-class against each another also forget is that UK farmers started recruiting most of the seasonal workforce from abroad only in the 1990s. Perhaps more pertinently, it disguises the fact that it was the “British worker” — more often than not, a far cry from the stereotypical depiction of the white male worker — whose skilled, efficient, and exhausting labor was needed to make the UK one of the world’s richest countries. To argue that “British workers” are too lazy to take on seasonal jobs is nothing but a disingenuous attempt at ideological gymnastics.

On a more general plane, the third oft-recycled assertion suggests that migrant Eastern European workers are nothing but passive victims of capital and therefore unorganizable due to the sectors in which they work. Clearly, farm employers across Europe are not only particularly nasty but as food suppliers, they are locked into highly competitive markets. It is thus more profitable to employ migrant workers on lower wages and subpar contracts. In the UK, the privatization of welfare provision, such as care for the elderly, has driven down wages. The deregulation of other areas of the economy such as transport services, particularly buses, has meant an intensification of competition through the use of low-cost labor.

Yet this should not make us believe that there is a certain predisposition for some nationalities to be more active in politics and unions than others. Put differently, the Eastern European workers are not an acquiescent and docile mass. Since their arrival postdating the EU’s eastward enlargement, they have joined unions in Western Europe and taken strike action in the thus-organized workplaces. One recent example from the UK includes a particularly successful migrant worker recruitment campaign by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) in the Midlands. Eastern Europeans now account for about one thousand of the roughly six thousand membership. Poles are the most significant contingent, but the union is also targeting Lithuanians, Latvians, and, increasingly, Romanians. BFAWU even has a Polish-focused affiliate (Polska UK) that recruits Eastern European workers.

Flexible, Seasonal, Low-Cost

Against such backdrops, the role of the migrant workforce for Western European firms can be said to fulfill the function not only of a “reserve army of labor,” but also the convenient means to raise the rate of exploitation and receive “free” dividends for capital as a whole. Over the last two decades, more advanced European economies regularly poached workers with particular skills, such as nurses, teachers, and social workers, from Eastern Europe and developing countries. As poignantly underscored by Jane Hardy, in the UK, the supply of migrant workers from outside the EU has been switched on and off to provide flexible, seasonal, low-cost labor. Employers have resorted to special schemes in agriculture and the so-called hospitality sector to import workers on a temporary basis. In this sense, migrant workers have been especially useful as part of the reserve army of labor, since they could be expelled just as quickly as they can now be imported in a time of pandemic. The use of migrant workers has been inextricably linked to the neoliberal agenda of increasing labor “flexibility” to ratchet up the rate of exploitation. This, in turn, has been driven by increased competition between capitals. Workers from Eastern Europe have been widely used in agriculture, food processing, distribution, and supermarkets. Indeed, capital’s ability to import these “ready-made” workers amounted to a tremendous saving. Firms operating in the “recipient country” did not have to pay for immigrant labor’s childhood and adolescence, benefiting from indirect yet substantial savings (on housing, schools, hospitals, transport, and other infrastructural facilities).

Those systemic tendencies combine with migrant workers’ own subjectivities wherein geographical mobility represents the possibility to escape tyranny and oppression, including that visited by capital in their home countries. Therefore, for a significant part of this segment of workers, outward migration has provided opportunities for earning money, learning a new language, and gaining experience. In this sense, living in the tension between the two cultures is conducive to transferring its effects back home and, in doing so, developing the geographical and intercultural interconnectedness of the working class. This allows us to see a latent potential to eradicate local and national parochialisms. At the same time, highly qualified young people with a master’s degree are working far below their abilities, in employment that has little protection and no structure for development or promotion. Other Eastern European workers have ended up on the streets when temporary work has dried up. In its latest report, the UK-based Combined Homelessness and Information Network reports that 23 percent of rough sleepers on London’s streets in 2017–18 were Eastern European — a decline from the staggering 37 percent figure for 2015­–16.

Regularized Status

Returning to agricultural labor shortages at the time of COVID-19, it can be stated that the possibility of finding workers in the UK and Germany will require innovative political imaginations, centrally led recruitment coordination, and subsidized training and pay. Outlawing piecework, guaranteeing decent remuneration, and employment conditions are the first steps.

In the longer term, questions need addressing as to how to abrogate employers’ ability to exploit wage differentials across Europe. In the absence of social protections, open borders will serve to continuously reproduce labor shortages side by side with labor reserves. As long as the social-democratic left parties in East-Central Europe remain deafeningly silent on the issue areas reserved to emigration-induced depopulation, torn apart families, labor shortages, EU-wide wage differentials, and the complicity of the “integration project” in all this, the gates will remain open for other forces to take advantage — and political barbarism to continuously raise its head.

As for struggles to unionize precariously employed workforces, guarantee their rights, and foster dialogue between unions across Europe, they will have to be prefaced by confronting capital’s ability to reproduce the antagonisms between migrant and local workers.

This debate is, however, not entirely new. We might remember Marx’s conclusion in his exchange with Nikolai Bakunin over the First International’s support for Irish national emancipation in 1870:

The average English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life. He feels national and religious antipathies for him. He regards him somewhat like the poor whites of the Southern States of North America regarded black slaves. This antagonism among the proletarians of England is artificially nourished and kept up by the bourgeoisie. It knows that this scission is the true secret of maintaining its power.

Investing our energies to transcend such a split is just as pertinent today.