The EU’s Seasonal Farm Workers Are Still Forced to Travel During the Pandemic

Photos of Eastern Europeans flown West to pick strawberries despite the lockdown has focused attention on the plight of the EU’s migrant farm laborers. But as some of these workers told Jacobin, traveling across Europe to make ends meet isn’t new — it’s just much more dangerous now.

A seasonal worker tends to strawberries inside a polytunnel ahead of the fruit-picking season at a farm on March 31, 2020 in Rochester, Kent. Dan Kitwood / Getty

For Kamen and Liliana (not their real names), a Bulgarian couple in their late fifties who spend half the year picking produce around England, the coronavirus quarantine was not a reason to stay home. Rather, fearing that they would end up being locked out of their seasonal agricultural jobs back in the UK, the two returned there in March: “We arrived in Bulgaria and the government announced the lockdown the next day. We stayed for ten days and returned to a new farm in the UK.”

Currently, they work at an oil crop farm for the minimum wage (£8.72 per hour; around $10.80) and live in camps together with other farm workers. They pay their boss rent for this meager accommodation, ensuring that part of their wages flows right back into his pockets. “We used to live in a caravan, very luxurious, we had everything. But there’s very few people at this farm. It’s a camp with two huge caravans. We pay rent for the accommodation — the price is the same everywhere outside of London, £55 a week, bills included.”

While their work does not include harvesting and is much easier than picking leeks — like they did at another farm earlier this year — the excruciating heat in the greenhouse exhausts them and drives away younger workers who’d rather work outside. For their part, they are just relieved to have legitimate work contracts and thus be plugged into UK tax and pension schemes.

They work alongside Romanians and other Bulgarians who come for the season, as well as Polish and Lithuanian workers who settled in England years ago and work for other, presumably higher wages, without requiring on-site accommodation. Health precautions at their farm are good, they say, with gloves and masks provided by their employer, “But there’s few of us here. At a big farm, you couldn’t enforce the same measures as you can here.”

For groceries and other daily necessities, they are driven to local stores with a company car, and generally, they feel safe. But would they have considered staying home if conditions were more dangerous? “Being here is better than being in Bulgaria,” Kamen quips. Liliana adds: “We risked going broke [if we had stayed] in Bulgaria.” For years now, they have worked in England for most of the year, returning home only to relax and maintain their property. “We rest and we grow fruits and vegetables at home, in our yard. We sell some of the produce.”

In Bulgaria, they used to run a shop, and Liliana worked as a teacher, but they needed multiple jobs just to make ends meet, and they claim that people their age would not be able to find employment back home: “Here, if you are willing to work, they don’t care about your age,” Kamen says. And the pay is good: “Last time, we managed to save £11,000. How long would I have to work in Bulgaria in order to make that much? I would have to be a member of parliament!” They realize, however, that this is the case only because they restrict their spending in the UK to the absolute minimum.

Their plan is to keep working in the UK until they reach the ten years of work experience needed to qualify for a British pension, then retire in Bulgaria. They are far from unique in this regard. They are among the hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans forced by economic necessity to temporarily migrate across Europe to work on German and British plantations, returning home to see their children and maintain their family homes for retirement.

This international division of labor makes them even cheaper for Western corporations, with medical costs and other expenses being shouldered by the fragile Eastern member-states they leave behind. As researcher Tsvetelina Hristova recently argued, the European system of shipping low-wage workers from East to West on a seasonal basis

has led to a rift in the geography of production and social reproduction in the Union that forces Eastern European migrants to separate the spaces of labour from the spaces of social reproduction. Tasks of sustaining health, social networks, and social security are relegated to the home country and, more specifically, to the household, which, in the context of eroding social protection from the state becomes the central institution for social reproduction.

For farms in the West, the arrangement means cheap workers who ideally return home as soon as the work is done. For the countries they leave behind, there are few tangible long-term benefits.

Planting in the Pandemic

For Ekaterina (also not her real name), a woman in her fifties who has worked on an English strawberry farm since losing her job at а now-privatized state company in Bulgaria, little has changed since COVID-19 broke out: “I’ve been coming here for seven years now; we work seasonally. I don’t stay longer than seven or eight months. I come in spring and leave in autumn. I decide when I come and go. They inform me when they start recruiting people. I fill out application forms online, and they send me a letter letting me know if I was approved.” Even workers who have been employed at the farm for years have to seek this renewal each time.

“Now, with the coronavirus and with flights being canceled, the English guy, the farm’s owner, sent over two charter flights [to Bulgaria] to pick people up, because he’s got three camps and needs people to work there.”

Ekaterina’s employer houses the primarily Romanian and Bulgarian workers close together in caravans or smaller temporary units she calls “boxes”:

Two people in each box, and three people in each caravan. They tried to introduce some restrictions and isolate people, but it’s impossible, because it’s a collective work process, and we can’t work away from each other. They ask us to keep our distance when we meet for work in the morning, but I think this is unnecessary, because we work in groups — we stand close to each other anyway.

Neither gloves nor masks are provided, only hand sanitizer, and some workers do not seem to take the threat of the virus seriously. “I am afraid of the coronavirus, but youngsters here don’t seem to be too concerned — they hang out in groups, even though it’s forbidden. Some older people don’t practice distancing either.” Ekaterina brings her own mask to work, not just because of the virus but also because of her allergy to strawberries: “But I saw an allergist back home, and I was prescribed an allergy medication.”

Laborers arriving from Bulgaria and Romania are quarantined for a week or two, depending on the farm, but in caravans away from those of other workers. Their temperature is taken upon arrival, but few on the farm feel like their employers have their best interests at heart: “[Managers] don’t care about corona, and they keep recruiting people. I don’t agree with this. But the guy wants his strawberries picked, and he doesn’t care about much else.”

Lost in Migration

Kamen and Liliana were initially hopeful that life would get better after the end of state socialism, and they were politically active during the turbulent 1990s. Thirty years later, however, the couple sees no prospects for a decent working life in their home country. “Many people stopped dreaming about change at that point. It became a destitute country,” says Kamen. The UK and other Western European countries at least promised comparatively decent wages.

Yet for all the talk of European integration promoting cross-cultural understanding and enrichment, for the couple and most of their fellow workers, going abroad means earning the money they’ll then spend back home — and little more. In their spare time, workers take lonely strolls around the farms and go fishing but avoid cultural or social activities in nearby towns. These would cost money that they simply can’t afford to spend.

Ekaterina found her current job through a former coworker from back home. Collegial relationships forged in the formerly state-owned enterprise are replicated at the British farm. Workers establish few new friendships with their compatriots, and almost none with locals.

Few manage to learn English while working in the UK, as their coworkers are all migrants who communicate in a mixture of Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, and German. Contact with locals is rare, and when their bosses need to speak with them, they arrange for translators. Studying after work is also out of the question. Ekaterina goes to the fields six days per week: “We work long hours, and that’s it. We rest only once. They decide which day we get off. I never know when I will be off work.”

She and her colleagues find themselves in a country whose language they cannot speak, earning wages four times what they would at home but still too low to really build a life in the UK. Language barriers and the additional hurdle posed by social distancing measures impede workplace organizing and keep them even more isolated.

She feels that Bulgarians are treated as “secondhand people. That’s what makes me angry.”  Bulgarians on the farm also find themselves stripped of their political rights, as they are unable to vote in the UK and also practically prevented from voting in Bulgarian elections: “I can’t vote, because I’m at the farm on election days.” She and others are left with a profound feeling of apathy: “I’ve come here to make money. I don’t want to take an interest in this farm anyway.”

Brexit, it seems, had little impact on the workers’ lives thus far. For Kamen, “Absolutely nothing changed. People are very earnest.” He likes Britain, and he wishes life back home in Bulgaria was as comfortable: “It’s nice in Bulgaria, but everything should be transparent, people should be honest. I want people in Bulgaria to resemble the people in England.”

Ekaterina, on the other hand, admits that “I don’t personally like England as a country, and I don’t like English people — I think they’re a nation of hypocrites. But I don’t see that anything’s changed since Brexit. They’re just plain slaveholders.”

At the same time, all of them know that even if they wanted to stay in the UK, their wages would not suffice. What keeps them going is the distant dream of eventually returning to their home country with some savings and a British pension, which would provide them with enough means to at least enjoy their retirement comfortably. Ekaterina worries she won’t be able to stand the backbreaking labor for the two or three more years she needs to earn a pension. Nevertheless, all of them are thankful to have found work here rather than in Spain or Italy, where wages are less than half of those in the UK, and conditions are much worse.

No Easy Solutions

Disappointed by widespread injustice, low pay, and discrimination at home, Kamen and Liliana encourage their son and daughter to leave Bulgaria. Kamen explains:

When we left for Italy the first time, they both asked me, “Where are you going at your age?” I said, “I’m leaving Bulgaria, it all sucks. This country sucks.” It’s so bad that it forces you to leave your own country. We’ve got a palatial house. We have a huge backyard, all arable land. We have an apple orchard, figs, raspberries, strawberries. We leave everything behind as it is, we will work on it when we go back.

Kamen’s attitude is symbolic of a whole generation of workers in the country, who, after decades of economic instability and crushingly low wages, have little hope for a better future.

When lockdowns and border closures began sweeping Europe in early March, some observers expressed cautious optimism that large numbers of returning workers would present an opportunity to organize local struggles for higher wages, improved health care, or fairer taxation. Two months later, this does not appear to be the case, with news of Wizz Air flying hundreds of sorely needed workers to the UK, and the Bulgarian foreign minister claiming that many returning migrants are now attempting to leave again.

As others have already noted, simplistic oppositions between an imperialist West/North and an exploited East/South are not useful when seeking to characterize relations across the continent. Indeed, many Eastern European employers import workers from poorer non-EU member states to compensate for alleged labor shortages at home. While the plight of Romanian and Bulgarian workers in Western Europe is finally getting the attention it deserves, we should not forget the tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Moldovans, and others stranded even lower on Europe’s labor market hierarchy.

There are no simple solutions to this challenge. Simply closing borders to migrant labor may to be a straightforward solution to Europeans unsympathetic to the plight of migrants, but as experience shows, banning migration does not stop it from happening — it just makes migrant workers even more vulnerable and precarious than they already are. For all of its faults, freedom of movement is arguably one of the EU’s greatest positives for its citizens, and revoking it would do nothing to solve the glaring economic disparities between EU member states. Ultimately, the plight of Kamen, Liliana, and Ekaterina is caused not by their migration as such, but rather by their status as underpaid, overworked, and unorganized workers.

What workers from Eastern Europe need, at the very minimum, are harmonized social protections and enforcement across the EU. Though EU membership was sold to Eastern Europeans as a path toward Western prosperity, the single market instead has the perverse effect of incentivizing Eastern member-states to keep wages and taxes low and labor regulations lax.

In the longer term, as Jokubas Salyga recently argued in Jacobin, the Left and the labor movement must figure out “how to abrogate employers’ ability to exploit wage differentials across Europe.” Building a force powerful enough to rein in employers and force them to pay higher wages thus requires not just a strong labor movement, but one able to impose its demands across the continent.