The Forgotten Key Workers: Seasonal Migrant Labour in the Age of COVID-19

The story of the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of devastation, but it has also highlighted the importance of key workers to the functioning of countries around the world. This has in turn led to a rising appreciation for the work that they do, with the media and people in general playing a role in facilitating rituals such as the United Kingdom’s ‘Clap for Carers’ movement. There is, however, a glaring omission in the COVID-19 ‘hall of heroes,’ where medical staff, teachers, transport workers and others deservedly sit. Seasonal migrant workers, who, as the term suggests, travel to other countries to take up predominantly agricultural work during specific times of the year, lack the level of recognition they should receive. 

The Economic Importance of Seasonal Migrants

Placing seasonal migrant workers in this distinguished category of labour may seem unusual at first, but that is because they have been practically invisible to most of us until this point. It was not uncommon to see other key workers in the media before the pandemic, nor was it unusual to encounter them in our daily lives. Seasonal migrant workers, on the other hand, are far removed on remote agricultural sites. Media attention and interaction with the general public has not been as common for this labour group, which has in turn hindered public awareness about their pivotal role in providing food for our tables. This has started to change as a result of the pandemic, as national governments and the agricultural industry have keenly felt the absence of these workers. Seasonal migrants make up approximately 30% of Germany’s entire agricultural labour force, whilst estimations by the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ Initiative suggest that a staggering 90% of seasonal workers in British edible horticulture are European Union migrants. 

Efforts to compensate for the reduction in seasonal migrant labour by enlisting the citizens of host countries have had limited success. The reasons for this are various; the work is physically demanding, indigenous workers typically have less agricultural experience than seasonal migrants and the financial reward is negligible. In April, the Chief Executive of the UK National Farmers’ Union revealed that although they had offered 900 nationals agricultural work over a ten-day period in that month, only 112 nationals had accepted their offers. It is therefore unsurprising that restrictions which had been placed upon international travel have been partially relaxed by some countries. Canada closed its borders on 18th March, but on 27th March essential workers and temporary foreign workers were exempted from this closure following demands from Canadian farming associations. Germany followed a similar path, initially closing its borders to non-Schengen countries on 25th March but then issuing an exemption for seasonal agricultural workers on 2nd April. The closure had cut off seasonal migrant labour from key countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, thus prompting German farming associations to emulate their Canadian counterparts by lobbying for an exemption. 

Exploitation: An Unjust Continuity 

Having shown that the pandemic has made national governments and farming associations fully aware of the economic importance of seasonal migration, a question remains: if the societal role of seasonal migrant workers is being increasingly recognised, then how have they been forgotten? The answer to this question lies in the relationship between contribution and reward. Whilst there have been vocal demands for increasing the pay of other key workers in light of their contributions during the pandemic, the newfound awareness of seasonal migrant workers’ contributions is yet to translate into widespread calls for fair treatment. The issue of fair treatment, however, goes beyond increasing these workers’ earnings, meagre as they may be. In addition to highlighting their contribution to their host countries, the pandemic has drawn attention to a sinister characteristic of seasonal agricultural work: the appalling conditions and abuse these workers face.

A 16th July press release by the European Commission featured an important observation made by the EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit. He noted the following:

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers help to underpin hugely important sectors of the EU’s economy, such as food and agriculture. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the challenging living and working conditions they face. This has to be addressed.”

The key phrase in this extract is the fact that the pandemic has “shone a light” on the struggles of seasonal migrant workers. In other words, this is not a new problem. Their situation has always been bad and has now worsened in spite of EU legislation intended to protect workers. Yet the reasons for this becomes apparent when one remembers that EU legislation is, in practice, dependent upon the willingness of EU member states to enforce it. For example, Directive 2014/54/EU sets out the rights of seasonal migrant workers from EU countries, such as the right to be assisted by national bodies of the host member state to ensure equal treatment and to have protection from victimisation. 

Yet the reality for seasonal migrants can be much darker, as demonstrated by the cruel treatment of Romanian women working in Sicilian greenhouses. In 2017, The Proxyma Association estimated that more than half of these women are forced to have sexual relations with their employers, and a 2015 report by Professor Alessandra Sciurba and Dr Letizia Palumbo cites the desperate poverty facing these women and their dependants if they were to refuse. It is unsurprising that Professor Sciurba condemned this treatment as “nothing less than forced labour and trafficking as defined by the United Nations International Labour Organisation.” Moreover, The Guardian writers Lorenzo Tondo and Annie Kelly cite an investigation which found that many of the women were rarely paid more than €20 each day. They further assert that because Italian exports of fruit and vegetables were worth €366 million in 2017, “there is little political or economic incentive” for national authorities to enforce the regulations which forbid these appalling conditions.  

COVID-19: A Catalyst for Exploitation 

If there was little political or economic incentive to protect seasonal migrant workers before COVID-19, one can only imagine how much this incentive has been reduced since the pandemic began. With entire industries being decimated by the effects of the virus, the temptation to overlook regulations protecting seasonal migrants will have grown substantially. In July, 200 seasonal migrant workers on a UK farm in Herefordshire were forced to self-isolate after 73 of them were found to have contracted COVID-19; a few weeks later, that number had climbed to 134. At the very least, this raises questions about how effectively social distancing measures were enforced on the farm. Romanian migrant workers in Germany voiced similar concerns in April, asserting that hygiene and social distancing rules were not being respected. Furthermore, a letter was sent to the Romanian government by the German-Romanian Association for Integration and Migration, which alarmingly claimed that many workers had not even received a contract of employment. 

The situation is no better for third-country nationals who undertake seasonal work in EU member states. Although they are afforded theoretical protection by the EU’s 2014 Seasonal Workers Directive, which set out minimum standards for the working conditions and rights of workers from outside the EU, serious problems remain. These problems are once again due to the fact that protecting these workers remains a low priority for national governments. A 2018 study undertaken by Margarite Helena Zoeteweij-Turhan, a lawyer at the Swiss Refugee Council, gives evidence of this lack of commitment by national governments. She points out that the deadline for enshrining the Seasonal Workers Directive in national law was September 2016, but that by this point fifteen EU member states had failed to even begin this process. However, even in countries like Spain, a member state whose pre-existing laws were deemed to be compatible with the Directive, the reality is that protections for seasonal migrants are still insufficient. According to the Moroccan newspaper Al Massae, at least 7,200 Moroccan women became stranded in the Spanish region of Huelva after the officials who facilitated their employment failed to contact them at the end of their seasonal work contracts. In addition to being stranded whilst unemployed, a United Nations Special Rapporteur condemned the lack of “even basic hygiene measures” and protective materials which had characterised the work they undertook. Ever since the bilateral treaty which facilitates this labour was signed between Spain and Morocco in 2001, it has been tainted by reports of sexual assault, a lack of basic standards of living and wages which are below the legal minimum. Clearly, the pandemic has exacerbated an already-desperate situation which these migrants face year upon year. 

Going Forward: A Changing Relationship?

The pandemic has redefined the traditional relationship between agricultural employer and seasonal employee. This is because it has demonstrated the vast imbalance between contribution and reward which characterises seasonal migrant labour. Before COVID-19, the prevalent view was that these migrants need us far more than we need them, because there would always be those willing to take their places. The pandemic has shown what happens when this seemingly endless supply of cheap labour is cut off; the economic loss of migrant workers is sorely missed. At the very least, these workers deserve to have their contributions recognised through effective enforcement of legislation which protects them and sets out minimum standards of living. Whether or not these minimum standards actually match their contributions is an issue which needs further discussion. 

Sahil Ali

The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.


Coronavirus Cases at Mathon Farm Rise to 134′ – BBC News

Eastern European Farm Workers Are Being Flown to the UK on Charter Flights to Pick Fruit and Vegetable Crops’ – BBC News

Concerns Raised Over Seasonal Workers’ Conditions in Germany‘ – Bogdan Neagu

European Commission Calls for Action in Protecting Seasonal Workers: Press Release, 16th July 2020European Commission

Guidelines on Seasonal Workers in the EU in the Context of the COVID-19 Outbreak’ – European Commission

Question E-001694-17 European Parliament

Moroccan Human Rights Association Calls to Bring Seasonal Workers Home’ – Kristen Gianaris

Vulnerability to Forced Labour and Trafficking: The case of Romanian women in the agricultural sector in Sicily’ – Letizia Palumbo and Alessandra Sciurba

The Seasonal Workers’ Directive: Another Vicious Cycle?‘- Margarite Helena Zoeteweij-Turhan

Why do Canada and Germany Allow in Seasonal and Other Workers, but Australia and New Zealand Do Not?‘ – Richard Curtain

Seasonal Harvest Workers During Covid-19′Roxana Barbulescu and Carlos Vargas-Silva

Raped, Beaten, Exploited: the 21st-Century Slavery Propping up Sicilian Farming‘ – The Guardian

Germany Partially Re-opens Borders for Seasonal Agricultural Workers‘- United States Department of Agriculture

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