The COVID-19 crisis reveals the exploitation of workers in Europe

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the many fundamental injustices in the prevailing neoliberal system worldwide, including in Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly exposed the disastrous consequences of the current food systems and how Europe is far from achieving food sovereignty.

Many Western European countries depend on migrant workers from Eastern Europe and North Africa, who are hired every year to work during the planting and harvesting seasons. Urgently in need of the pay, migrant farmworkers are easy victims of exploitation by commercial farmers, who prefer the foreign workers to local ones as they are much cheaper and can work harder. The exploitative conditions have been standard practice for many years, but only now amidst the COVID-19 crisis is more attention being paid to their situation.

The pandemic broke in Europe just around the time when the 2020 planting season was about to start. Since the national borders had been closed, farmers were faced with the problem of how to manage without the migrant workers. In Germany, the Ministry for Food and Agriculture was quick to react and arranged for some 40,000 seasonal workers to come to Germany from Romania by plane.

Employers are supposed to ensure all the necessary precautions for the safety of the workers. However, the reality is very different.

Workers were packed tight onto buses in Romania on the way to the airport. Upon arrival in Germany, employers failed to provide all their needs: accommodation, food, hygiene – including the particular measures needed for protection against COVID-19 as trade union and media reports have shown. On large-scale farms, physical distancing is often impossible; up to 70 people are taken out to the fields in trailers without protective masks and they are obliged to work in groups of some 45. Although only half the normal number of beds in the dormitories should be occupied, it is reported that many workers have to sleep in a small space. Furthermore, they are obliged to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for low wages. In some cases, the cost of the air ticket bringing them to Germany has been taken off their wages.

A number of workers who refused to work in protest at the conditions were excluded from meals. The argument: “Only those who work are allowed to eat!”

In the health service, the exploitation of health workers and support staff in many European countries has never been seriously addressed despite their constant calls for an end to long working hours, poor pay and lack of recognition. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, these front liners have suddenly been recognised as “heroes,” literally risking their lives in hospitals where the necessary protective equipment is not available due to years of neglect, lack of investment, and dependence on global supply chains. As health workers are saying, the applause for their commitment in the form of daily hand clapping is appreciated, but it should lead to structural changes in government health policy.

These two examples of exploitative situations in Europe reveal the need for systemic change and an end to putting profit before people. In the words of the poet and activist Sonya Renee Taylor, quoted recently by the Dutch Philippines Solidarity Movement (NFS): “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

It is tragic that it has taken a catastrophe of this scale for these injustices to become widely recognized, but we need to seize the moment and make it a turning point to ensure that genuine, systemic changes are made. ###

Written by Julie Smit, PCFS Europe

(Photo by Raul Stef/AP)

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