Both Romanian and international press have documented the working and living conditions of Romanians off to work abroad, during COVID-19-imposed restrictions. The journalists’ investigations and the workers’ testimonies have brought to the fore numerous cases of abuse and systemic exploitation of workers in Western farms and abattoirs. We have selected the most relevant news, published in the first months of the pandemic.
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Seasonal workers in the media
The timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic for Romanian migrant workers
February 26, 2020
The first case of the new Coronavirus is diagnosed on Romanian territory
March 16, 2020
Romania declares a state of emergency
In order to cope with the workforce crisis, German authorities, pressured by employers, decide to prolong employment time for seasonal workers from 70 to 115 days
March 30, 2020
Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, imperatively calls on EU member states to allow seasonal workers across their borders. She pleads for protecting the Single Market, as well as production and supply chains
The UK’s campaign for recruiting local agricultural workers fails. The British Government switches focus to seasonal workers from Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland
April 4, 2020
Military Ordinance No. 7 is issued, allowing charter flights that transport seasonal workers from Romania to other Western countries
April 9, 2020
The first seasonal workers’ flights are organized at the Cluj airport
Aglomerație pe aeroportul din Cluj: aproximativ 1.800 de oameni, înghesuiți în parcare. 12 curse decolează astăzi spre Germania
Mii de români pleacă astăzi din țară, de pe Aeroportul din Cluj-Napoca, către Germania, 12 avioane fiind închiriate de către firmele care îi duc la muncă, a confirmat pentru Libertatea, un angajat al aeroportului. Premierul Orban anunța ieri că România nu va restricționa deplasarea muncitorilor români în străinătate.
Thousands of Romanian seasonal workers fly to Germany despite COVID-19 restrictions
Between 1,500 and 2,000 Romanian workers gathered at the international airport in Cluj-Napoca on Thursday, April 9, to fly to Germany where they will spend the next few months working in agriculture (picking strawberries and asparagus) and other temporary jobs.
Just 112 out of 50,000 UK applicants turn up to replace Eastern Europeans fruit picking
The Alliance of Ethical Labour received 50,000 applications expressing interest in helping pick crops during the coronavirus lockdown after the government launched its 'Pick for Britain' initiative. But the Telegraph reports that out of the strong number of applications just 6,000 opted for a follow up video interview for a role. Around 900 then rejected the job offer, with just 112 taking the offer of a seasonal job on a UK farm.
April 11, 2020
A Romanian asparagus picker in Germany dies after contracting the new Coronavirus
An increasing number of testimonies of the abuse and exploitation that Romanian workers abroad are subjected to emerges in the national and international press
COVID-19 outbreaks at German abattoirs point to the inhumane working and living conditions that Romanian workers are subjected to
July 16, 2020
The European Commission proposes a set of recommendations for protecting seasonal workers in Europe, in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic
September 8, 2020
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) calls on further action from the Commission, including the elimination of abusive practices through subcontracting the workforce and the temporary work agencies
Adoption of Law 227/2020 amending Law 156/2000 regarding the protection of Romanian citizens working abroad
VIDEO Mărturiile unor români aflaţi la cules de sparanghel în Germania: „Nu s-a respectat nimic. Muncim şi duminica. Suntem trataţi ca sclavii“
Cetăţeni români aflaţi la cules de sparanghel în Germania continuă să relateze despre condiţiile de muncă şi cazare complicate pe care sunt nevoiţi să le suporte. Situaţia se derulează la o fermă agricolă, unde românii au fost angajaţi pentru a culege sparanghel.
The Systematic Exploitation of Harvest Workers in Europe
Millions of seasonal workers across the Continent are responsible for picking much of the low-cost produce available in European supermarkets. But an international research project reveals that many of these workers face abysmal conditions – and the COVID-19 crisis has made things even worse.
The international press started documenting the story of seasonal workers even before the first charter flights were organized. Journalists have highlighted:
- The failure of local farm work recruitment campaigns in the UK and Germany.
- The pressures exerted by Western farmers’ associations, which demanded that the government facilitate the access of seasonal workers.
- The changes in Germany’s seasonal work law: expanding the workload, as well as contract duration, from 3 to 5 months.
Some of the Romanian worker’s life-stories have been documented right before their departure abroad. A few days later, the same persons would expose the scale of the abuses they were subjected to during this work-season.
Quite fast and without too many preparatory measures, special charters are organized, transporting workers from Romania and other East European countries towards Germany, Netherlands, Austria, United Kingdom etc.
In order to find a job abroad, Romanian workers reach out to intermediaries and informal job postings (OLX, Facebook, Publi24). Journalists spot work intermediaries even at the airport, but Labor Inspection officials fail to spot any irregular activity.
In the United Kingdom, some Romanian workers are satisfied with the working conditions. In Germany on the other hand, images depicting how poor the COVID-19 social distancing measures are enacted spread really fast, despite the official discourse of the authorities.
Videos taken by Romanian workers depict serious irregularities regarding the transport, housing and working conditions. In the context of the mobility restrictions imposed by the pandemic, workers are not allowed to leave the farms, and the abuses that Romanian male and female workers have to face are unimaginable.
The press also helped us to understand how little prepared the authorities are to respond to this new crisis. Governments regulate the conditions under which seasonal workers should live and work, but these rules are rarely implemented .
The exploitation of Romanian workers on the asparagus farms is not an isolated case.
Forms of solidarity
Trade Unions in the UK pressure the Government to ensure that the working and housing conditions respect the social distancing rules. Trade Unions in Germany offer support in cases of abuse, while workers’ struggles hit the headlines of the main publications and TV news channels.
Faire Mobilität provides information and legal assistance for abused workers. Locals show solidarity with Romanian workers protesting against the abuses. Trade Unions in France and Spain denounce the dire working conditions and abuses. In Romania, eLiberare develops the platform Muncă.Info, gathering useful information for Romanians who want to work abroad.
Legislative and political impact
Following reports in the international press, in May 2020 the Romanian Minister of Labour, Violeta Alexandru, pays a working visit to Germany, where she meets with her counterpart and the Minister of Agriculture. The German Embassy provides information on the working conditions in Germany and the Labour Inspectorate starts inspections at employment agencies sending workers abroad.