Why Social Distancing “Doesn’t Apply” to Germany’s Migrant Farmworkers

The German state emphasizes the need for social distancing — except for the Romanian migrants working in its farms. The EU’s neoliberal order has deepened the continent’s labor market inequalities, making a mockery of the rhetoric of European solidarity.

A group migrant laborers pick strawberries in a greenhouse during the harvest on May 7, 2020 in Lepe, Spain. (Niccolo Guasti / Getty Images)

A few days before the Orthodox Church celebrated Easter, thousands of Romanians found themselves packed together in a provincial airport in the city of Cluj, bound for Germany to work the asparagus harvest in the middle of a pandemic. Though the Romanian state strictly enforces social distancing and has issued record numbers of fines for people breaking quarantine, these workers were packed into buses from all over the country (including areas under military lockdown), dumped in front of the overcrowded airport, and left waiting for hours without protective equipment.

Though shocking, the scene was representative of a more general reality — that social distancing and shelter-in-place measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are only available to some. Despite the lockdown, millions of people across the globe must go to work not only to survive, but precisely because their labor is essential to maintaining the very possibility of lockdowns for everyone else. Food still needs to be picked, processed, and transported. Infrastructure still needs to be maintained, basic services kept running. All of this is impossible without people willing to perform the necessary labor, and employers will do whatever they can to find them.

Europe’s Coronavirus Conscripts

Such was the case for the Romanian asparagus pickers. Citing the risk of crops rotting in the fields, the German state came to the rescue of its agricultural sector by persuading Romania to allow chartered flights of temporary workers out of the country. The Romanian state duly obliged — yet not out of blind obedience to the European hegemon, but because supplying cheap and flexible labor to the wealthier countries of the EU has been Romania’s standard practice for the past three decades. More flights were subsequently authorized for workers traveling to the UK for similar purposes. Less than a month earlier, Romanian nurses had been permitted to travel to Austria to help fight the virus there, despite the fact that the Romanian health care system is already one of Europe’s weakest.

Contrary to reassurances from the government and the companies contracting these workers, it soon became clear that they were being placed in great danger. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many found that their wages would not be as generous as recruiters promised. Several videos showed workers crammed together in small barracks, some of them even sleeping on the floor.

Isolated from the rest of the world, their passports withheld by their employers, Romanian casual laborers were expected to work ten hours per day, seven days per week, and pay for their own food and lodging. Just as testimonies about the working conditions began making the rounds on social media, a Romanian man at an asparagus farm near Freiburg tragically died after contracting the virus. Two weeks later, nearly three hundred Romanian contract workers at a meat processing plant near Pforzheim also tested positive.

The official response of the Romanian ambassador, Emil Hurezeanu, was verbose but superficial. He lavished praise on German employers and the authorities for their efforts to organize work during the pandemic, but had little to say about the fate of his compatriots now battling illness as a result. Rather than represent the rights of Romanian citizens abroad, he seemed most concerned with ensuring that labor migration from East to West continued to flow no matter the cost.

Eastern Europeans’ Paradoxical Privilege

Dreadful as it may sound, there is nothing unique or unexpected about any of this. Hundreds of thousands of agricultural laborers from Latin America toil under unbearable conditions in the fields of the United States. Undocumented migrants from North Africa and South Asia are viciously exploited under conditions bordering on slavery across the plantations of Spain, Italy, and Greece. Everywhere around the world, manual laborers — particularly in agriculture — are being exploited and abused even more than before the crisis.

Yet the manner in which Romanian and other Eastern European workers were shipped off, in total disregard for their safety and with the permission of their own governments, highlights the specifics of labor migration in the EU, where a common market and open internal borders allow workers to traverse freely between ostensibly equal member states. Hidden behind this formal equality, however, are the silent compulsions of material necessity that drive hundreds of thousands from the poorer East and South to move West.

At the heart of Europe is a highly profitable industry specialized in importing cheap labor from the East to various core countries. This fact is nothing new, but is seldom discussed as a fundamental characteristic of the European project. Professionalized recruitment agencies and institutionalization at the EU level have lent the industry a veneer of legitimacy in recent decades, now shattered by the bad optics of poor migrants compelled to work on German farms during a pandemic.

Romanian workers are vital economic assets in the West because they are willing to perform backbreaking labor for significantly less than local workers, and can arrive legally since joining the EU in 2007. This puts them in the unenviable category of flexible workers who are nevertheless comparatively “privileged” over non-EU migrants, refugees, and undocumented workers. By virtue of having an EU passport, they lower relocation costs for temporary labor and thus make cheaper hires. Why should employers traffic undocumented migrants when Eastern Europeans will come willingly and even pay for their own ticket?

The arrangement allows medium and large farms in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK to reap handsome profits while imposing harsh conditions on displaced workers who lack the resources to defend themselves. As an old saying goes, “a hungry worker from abroad is worth two from home.” Perversely, the products of these migrants’ labor end up back in Romania on the shelves of German- and French-owned supermarkets, which in turn price local producers out of the market. The latter are then forced to either fire their workers or cut wages in an attempt to compete, in turn perpetuating a vicious cycle by creating even more unemployed workers willing to go abroad.

It is estimated that labor-related migration has doubled since the EU began expanding eastward in 2004, predominantly from East to West. This fluid network of laborers, deprived of their rights and cut off from organized labor, extends beyond agriculture into care work, transportation, construction, gastronomy, hospitality, and tourism.

Migrants were hit twice over when the virus began spreading in Western countries, particularly Italy and Spain where most Romanians work. As lockdowns brought the economy to a halt, most were fired and forced to move back to Romania and whatever modicum of social belonging they still had there. In the West, they found themselves excluded as redundant and disposable cheap laborers who did not qualify for benefits or other forms of social security; at home, they were ostracized as carriers of a deadly disease — not just the virus, but their very status as unemployed and unprotected workers, further burdening an already fragile and crumbling social system.

Here, the social contract at the heart of the EU comes into sharp relief: core countries accumulate the profits produced by cheap Eastern European labor, while externalizing most of the costs onto them and their home countries. Given this state of affairs, further remarks about the hollow nature of “European solidarity” seem rather unnecessary.

A Very Uneven Development

The current situation did not begin with the coronavirus, nor is it just a detail in the wider web of relations within the EU. It constitutes a structural element of how European capitalism functions. In fact, it is what holds the Union together and is key to its global competitiveness in several industries, like care, manufacturing, and tourism. It is thus all the more perverse that this exploitative relationship is often depicted as a privilege for Eastern Europeans that they should thankfully embrace.

Mainstream commentators typically praise the mobility of Eastern workers as a success story of the post-socialist transition and EU expansion. And in a cynical sense, they are correct: for the roughly four million Romanians who left to work abroad in the last three decades, not being exploited at home would perhaps have been an even more miserable fate.

At the same time, Western capital invested in Romania enjoys some of the highest profitability rates in Europe. Though tax rates on corporate earnings already resemble a tax haven while taxes on waged incomes are disproportionately high, foreign firms are able to further externalize profits via tax optimization strategies. In addition, the Romanian state is too institutionally weak and politically uninterested to collect taxes, preferring instead to maintain economic growth through cheap industrial labor at home in the service of the EU export economy spearheaded by Germany.

Thomas Piketty has described how the West benefits from uneven development inside the EU by extracting resources and profits from the former Communist countries. Wage differentials are only part of the story — exorbitant profits are reaped through investment, privatizing former state assets, low taxation, and generous legislation that makes it easy (if not entirely legal) to siphon off profits, only a fraction of which return to the region via much-hyped EU budgetary mechanisms.

How are these countries supposed to maintain small deficits while also investing in development projects, infrastructure, health, and education? Obviously, they cannot. The example made of Greece following that country’s economic crisis in 2009 is by far the most well-known case, but the situation is similar in the non-Eurozone EU periphery.

A Union in Name Only

As the coronavirus tore through Western Europe, mainstream media correctly decried the lack of European solidarity with regard to Italy, abandoned by its neighbors at the height of a deadly pandemic. A similar case could have been made for Eastern Europe — but, as usual, it was not. Time and again we have seen that when push comes to shove, the structural hierarchies inside the EU encourage the prioritizing of national interests over intra-European solidarity.

More disappointing, however, was the deafening silence from the Western European left on the issue. This is not surprising, as most of the Left has struggled to articulate a coherent approach to EU policy beyond abstract, toothless appeals to “solidarity.” Some parts of the Left subscribe to the idea that a return to a postwar welfare state arrangement can only be possible within national borders, and have accordingly little to offer migrant workers. Yet more generally, the wider challenge is how to formulate a clear set of demands from a position of weakness and within an institutional framework that works against organized labor and the Left.

With little on offer other than platitudes, it is hardly surprising that many working-class voters in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia have chosen to rally against this structural imbalance behind the nationalism and protectionism of demagogues like Viktor Orbán. The Romanian political climate is noticeably different precisely because large segments of the population still depend on the unequal division of labor inside the EU. They “prefer,” as Romanian president Klaus Iohannis bluntly put it when asked about the crowded airport in Cluj, to be exploited in Europe than face destitution at home, where salaries are among the lowest in the EU and the state allocates the smallest percentage of GDP to health care and social services.

That said, even if the political winds were to shift in the Left’s favor, what could it plausibly do? The architecture of the European Union, which naturalizes historically accumulated inequalities between countries and regions, cannot be dislodged by policy reforms alone, no matter how far-reaching or profound. Short of this, however, some EU-level changes could serve to alleviate the plight of migrant workers, empower them, and perhaps even open a path to more radical designs.

Such measures include mandating a realistic living wage in all European countries. Romania’s net minimum wage of 290 euros per month fails to even cover rent in large cities. A significant hike in the minimum wage would dramatically lower the pressure to move abroad and raise consumption and tax revenues at home. Universal basic income proposals at the European level also deserve serious attention, as they could provide immediate relief for the most vulnerable and thus ease the pressure to work under dangerous conditions just to survive, as is the case for so many during the current pandemic.

A more radical approach would have to envisage putting an end to Eastern Europe’s status as a reservoir of cheap labor. Eastern Europeans are generally paid lower wages not only compared to their Western counterparts, but also in relation to their own labor productivity. Firms in Eastern Europe should be forced, by European law, to lower their profit margins and pay higher wages. Reinstating effective labor laws is also of paramount importance. In their quest for foreign direct investment, Eastern European countries slashed tax rates and dismantled socialist-era labor codes that protected workers. This drastically exacerbated precarious employment and set the stage for the emergence of a continental reserve army of labor.

As long as large numbers of Eastern Europeans move West to work in the core countries of the EU, these governments should be pressured to take more responsibility for all workers within their borders. Extending and deepening social security and medical coverage at the European level would offer workers more protection and distribute the costs of their social reproduction more evenly between the member states.

These represent quite modest and basic proposals, but they are crucial to protecting the millions of Eastern European (and other) migrant workers who face unimaginable threats and obstacles every day just to earn a living. Exposed by the pandemic but ingrained in its functioning, the social Darwinism at the heart of the EU must become the subject of serious attention by the Left. If it is not, the reactionary alternative put forward by the Orbáns and Le Pens will be the only one on offer.