Invisible Workers: The Dark Side of Europe’s Fruit Trade

Written by | Friday, July 24th, 2020

As the Covid-19 pandemic swept across Europe, those helping to bring food to our plates suddenly became visible, even hailed as “essential workers”. But for the past six decades, the EU’s farming policy has overlooked their labour rights and living conditions. The EU’s common agricultural policy – the biggest pool of subsidies in the world – aims to support farm owners and pumps nearly €60 billion into the sector each year. The working conditions of those employed by these farms, however, are not even mentioned in the subsidies scheme. Migrants – both illegal and legally employed – usually complain of unpaid hours, working under tremendous pressure, with very little water or protection, some fainting and vomiting from the exhaustion, being forced to stay in dire housing conditions and sometime being subject to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.
Spain is Europe’s leading producer of fruit and vegetables. In the southern province of Huelva, strawberries are known as “red gold,” a juicy business worth around €500 million in revenue each year. But the industry hides a rotten side. Many farmworkers in the region are undocumented migrants living in “chabolas” – shacks made up of discarded pallets, pieces of cardboard and plastic leftover from greenhouses, with no access to electricity, sanitation or clean water. Among them are also thousands of migrant strawberry pickers, mostly female seasonal workers, from Morocco. Apart from seasonal pickers — mostly from Morocco, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria — hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants live year-round in shantytowns close to the fields. The agricultural model of Spain has been questioned for years because of the working and living conditions of its migrant workers. “They live like animals. Their conditions are among the worst that I have seen in any part of the world,” said the United Nations’ Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights after a visit to the camps last February.
Being the EU’s biggest producer of cereals and oilseeds, France receives over €7 billion euros annually – by far the highest amount of agricultural subsidies among all members states. But also here the workers frequently complain about long working days, extra hours left unpaid, and excessive housing costs. Also in neigboring Germany, clusters of Covid-19 exposed the cramped working and living conditions of those butchering the meat that hits our supermarket shelves. The German meatpacking firm Tönnies came under fire when it struggled to help authorities track and trace hundreds of infected workers. Much of the company’s workforce is hired in Eastern Europe, via subcontractors accused by unions of underpaying extra working hours and charging migrant workers hundreds of euros of rental fees for a bed in a shared room.
The European Parliament has only recently (19 June) acknowledged the challenges faced by seasonal and cross-border workers when it passed a resolution calling for urgent action to safeguard their health and safety. It stated that the pandemic had “exposed and exacerbated social dumping and the existing precariousness” for many of them. “These workers are essential workers because in this crisis, if we hadn’t had them, we would have a food crisis,” says Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights.

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