On 15th November 2023 the Horizon Europe-funded SafeHabitus project hosted its first webinar, on “Views from the fields: case studies of migrant workers’ experiences in European Agriculture”.
The webinar attracted participants from across Europe to discuss the challenges facing migrant workers in industrial agriculture.
Speakers highlighted a range of issues, from rights violations among migrant workers and inadequate remuneration to the specific challenges faced by migrant women and the impact of supermarket price pressure on working conditions.
Participants heard how the number of small farms is declining, being replaced by intensive agriculture at the heart of food supply chains. With this comes a workforce of seasonal and migrant workers. Speakers explained how, as transitory workers, their labour and working conditions are becoming a growing concern for agriculture and food value chain stakeholders, including policymakers and consumers.
Yoan Molinero, of Comillas Pontifical University, introduced the workshop, and gave a detailed account of the state of play across the EU. While most farms remain relatively small, with over two-thirds encompassing areas less than or equal to 5 hectares, a significant shift in land distribution is evident. A staggering 82.4% of the EU’s utilised agricultural area is under the control of cooperatives and companies managing farms exceeding 20 hectares. This trend highlights a concentration of agricultural land in the hands of larger-scale entities, indicating a transformation in the distribution and control of agricultural resources within the European Union.
Other presentations looked at an array of case studies, such as the plight of African workers in southern Spain. Juan Castillo of IUEM-Comillas and Carlos Ruiz of Oxfam-Intermón described the growth of migrant worker shanty towns, explaining how racial discrimination means that “even when they are earning a salary, they end up living in extreme deprivation”. This manifests itself in lack of water, electricity, and lack of access to public services, living in homes made of plastic, wood and “anything they can get their hands on.”
This experience was contextualised by Dr Molinero’s account of the development of agricultural Fordism in across Spain and Italy, at the same time those countries were experiencing ageing, depopulation and low-grade employment opportunities. Alessandra Corrado, of the University of Calabria, also explained how such social shifts affected “the restructuring of agriculture and farms”, which are common across Europe, especially “the problems in generational turnover that make it difficult to replace family workers in the farm”, thus creating demand for migrant workers.
Among other insights, Monica Serban and Alin Croitoru, of the Romanian National Institute for Economic Research, drew attention to less visible aspects of the lives of migrant workers – what happens when they return. Ms. Serban and Mr. Croitoru explained that on their return, migrant workers face risks of unemployment and few educational opportunities. This issue was noted as of particular concern due to the large number of Romanian migrant workers. In the realm of seasonal migration, which began roughly three decades ago, Germany and Spain emerged as prominent destinations through bilateral agreements, facilitating over 100,000 seasonal migrants in agriculture towards Germany alone. This significantly impacts the nation’s demographics and economy, with challenges stemming from a brain drain of working-age individuals alongside positive aspects like economic and social remittances.
Oxfam’s Tim Zahin gave an account of some of Germany’s asparagus, strawberry and vegetable farms, where Mr Zahn explained that conditions are sometimes so poor that workers told him “we are not in Europe here”. Mr Zahn explained the power of some supermarkets over agriculture in Germany, and how price pressure can negatively affect working conditions and wages. Consequently, migrant workers felt excluded from the promise of Europe.
Sam Scott, from the University of Gloucestershire, presented an evaluation of horticultural labour policy in the UK, explaining the shift to a visa basis for migrant workers from Europe and beyond. In his account of analyses of the scheme, Dr Scott made several recommendations such as independent monitoring of the visa scheme, promoting best practices, greater inclusion, a pathway to permanent settlement for those working, and clear and effective protection of migrant workers.
The webinar then moved to discussions about the case studies and broader issues arising. Several participants emphasised the importance of involving social partners, trade unions, and employers’ associations, underlining the growing significance of wage labour in agricultural production.
While acknowledging the difficulties in organising migrant workers due to their mobility and rural locations, participants advocated for a holistic approach, including awareness-raising campaigns, policy considerations, rule enforcement, and increased inspections to improve their conditions. Participants welcomed the social conditionality in the Common Agricultural Policy, while also pointing out the fact that its effectiveness depends on consistent implementation across member states.
Overall, the event underscored the multifaceted nature of tackling migrant workers’ issues, especially for those who suffer from intersectional discrimination such as migrant women and thus are in a more vulnerable situation, emphasising the necessity of a collective and comprehensive approach involving various stakeholders to enhance their situations in European agriculture.
In a separate discussion, concerns were raised regarding the challenging conditions faced by parts of the agricultural sector, questioning the reasons behind agriculture’s struggles compared to other sectors. There was an emphasis on addressing the root causes of these issues, pointing towards how agriculture is addressed at the European level and market conditions for farmers.
The focus for several participants was on the broader economic challenges rather than employers’ unwillingness to provide better conditions. Solutions were proposed to tackle resource scarcity, improve the social context, and gain recognition for the sector.
Participants cautioned against public speeches that amplify agricultural issues in a wholly negative manner, potentially damaging the sector’s image. Instead, they advocated for a constructive approach, urging consumer contributions towards better conditions, and involving stakeholders to effectively address complex challenges in agriculture which hinder the situation of seasonal workers.
The SafeHabitus community continues its work to investigate and make recommendations on health and safety for farm workers.
You can watch the whole webinar below