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Farm workers pick asparagus in Spain Farm workers pick asparagus in Spain 

Covid-19: Caritas asks for rights for migrant farm workers

Oranges and strawberries rotting in the fields, empty shelves in our supermarkets, and 'invisible' workers living in unsanitary conditions putting their own- and society's - safety at risk, is a reality Caritas Europa is asking EU member states to address by recognizing the rights of migrant farm workers.

By Linda Bordoni

One very vulnerable group of workers highlighted by the coronavirus emergency is that of migrant farmworkers, especially seasonal undocumented migrant workers, who have no socio-economic protection or legal rights.

Their plight is particularly dramatic during the current Covid-19 emergency as most, fearing repatriation, remain undetected and live in unsanitary conditions that are dangerous for themselves and society at large.

Caritas Europa and its member organisations have repeatedly denounced the exploitation of migrant workers and are calling on states to ensure that their rights are respected, that they are provided with decent working conditions, and granted immediate legal papers to remain in Europe.

And, as Leila Bodeux, Policy Officer at Caritas Europa explains, the pandemic is also impacting food supply chains throughout Europe, underscoring how acutely the EU’s agricultural system depends on migrant workers as vast amounts of fruits and vegetables are at risk of being left unpicked.

Listen to the interview with Leila Bodeux

Bodeux said that the Covid-19 crisis has shown to what extent we rely on migrant labourers to work in the fields and collect the harvests. In fact, due to Covid-19 protection measures and to travel restrictions, several European countries are facing severe agricultural produce loss because of the lack of seasonal workers and the farming sector is struggling.

“This is one of the problems that has been highlighted in many countries. For example, in France there is the need for 200,000 seasonal workers in the next 3 months,” she noted.

Exploited workers

Next to that, Bodeux continued, “there is a pool of undocumented migrants who have been living and working in countries like Italy, or Spain for many years, working in the fields and being exploited there.” 

These are very vulnerable people, she explained, who can't work because of Covid related measures and one of the things Caritas Europa is asking is that they be granted the legal status to be able to work, within a regulated system and in decent conditions, because at the moment, although they are key to our economies, they are undeclared workers falling through the cracks. 

“Some of them are legal migrants, but many of them are illegal migrants coming from countries in Africa; they are used to work in a kind of ‘invisible’ way, but now, because of Covid-19, they are afraid of being apprehended by the police because they are unable to respect the physical distancing measures, and so they are hiding in very horrible shantytowns,” she said.

What’s more, Bodeux added, travel restrictions have added to the shortage of seasonal workforce, coming from countries like Romania.

An austrian farmer works in a field without the help of seasonal workers
An austrian farmer works in a field without the help of seasonal workers

A multi-faceted problem

It’s a multi-faceted problem, she said, on one hand, the workers themselves have no rights and no protection, on the other, the agricultural sector is suffering because of a lack of workforce, and our societies feel the effects because produce is not getting picked and distributed to our shops.

Caritas Europa calling for bold and permanent measures

Bodeux explained that the issues related to regularization of labour belong to the realm of individual national states “because they have the legal capacity” that is needed, so it is to them that Caritas Europa is directing its message.

But, she said, “it is also a Pan-European issue with systematic problems, so we are not calling just on Italy or Spain, but on different countries facing similar problems to start looking at regularization possibilities.”

“We have the good example of Portugal that has granted temporary citizen rights to immigrants and asylum seekers until 1 July; this is a temporary measure, it is welcome, but we would like to have bolder and more permanent measures,” she said.

A win-win solution

Another important aspect to be considered, she said, is the fact that the regularization of people who have been working for many years and contributing to our economies, would have far-reaching positive effects.

“One thing the Covid-19 crisis has made evident is how migrants, undocumented or legal, contribute positively to our lives, to our economy, to our food system”, Bodeux concluded, and if they were able to work legally and contribute to our tax systems and therefore finance our welfare systems, it would be a win-win solution for all.

28 April 2020, 13:47