As Good as White Gold: how CEE migrant workers keep food on Europe’s tables5 min read
After the European Union’s 2004 expansion, while many workers from new EU states were taking hard to fill jobs and helping to relieve massive labor shortages in Western Europe, an unfortunate stereotype would be born. This was embodied in the Polish plumber, who along with other migrants from Central and Eastern Europe was perceived to be undercutting the wages of native workers and boosting unemployment. The global pandemic of COVID-19; however, has made it unmistakably clear that these very workers are the backbone to many industries in Western Europe. The importance of migrants from these regions will become even more painstakingly obvious in the coming months and it may come down to what is available on Europe’s plates.
Spring is a busy time for the agricultural sector. Fruits and vegetables need to be harvested and turned to market quickly lest the crops be lost. With borders closed and a strict lockdown, many feared that Germany’s crops would suffer and especially that its famed white asparagus would be spoiled. To avoid such a situation, Berlin made a deal with Bucharest to fly in thousands of Romanian workers to tend the “white gold” even though Germany had banned entry to all others and Romania had established strict lockdown. Pictures illustrate that distancing measures were not respected, increasing the risk for these workers to contract the virus. This prompts an obvious question: who will take on the risks to keep German supermarkets stocked?
Germany is not alone in this effort to save its produce. When France shut its borders, it also closed off access to the majority of its seasonal agricultural workers, many again who hail from Central and Eastern Europe. When faced with the reality that fruits and vegetables would spoil and devastate the farming sector, it was announced that entry exemptions would be made for European nations such as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.
So too goes the story in the United Kingdom, where the majority of the farm laborers come from the EU with many hailing from Central and Eastern Europe. The UK flew in Romanian fruit and vegetable pickers as the coronavirus lockdown and border closures, England and Wales predict their agricultural labor forces will be cut by up to 75 percent. The Country Land and Business Association President stated that, “Where it is possible and safe to do so in the current circumstances, bringing in workers from overseas to help meet the shortfall is the right thing to do if we want to keep the supermarkets stocked.”
But if Germany’s abattoirs are any example, even with precautions, ensuring the safety of workers will be a difficult feat. A meat processing plant in North Rhine-Westphalia employing mostly Romanians and Bulgarians became a hotspot with 151 out of 200 workers testing positive for COVID-19. The spread worsened, most likely as a result of the tight and decrepit staff dorms provided by the plants. Germany’s meat industry is incredibly profitable but conditions faced by employees on the ground are often substandard. Trade unions estimate that 80 percent of these jobs are held by migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.
Despite the fact that these very workers from Eastern Europe are practically saving Western European agricultural and meat industries, before the pandemic, politicians in Germany, France, and Britain saw them in a distinctly unfavorable light. German municipal leaders accused their fellow EU citizens of being “poverty refugees” with Romanians and Bulgarians “spreading rubbish in the streets and exacerbating problems with rats.” As work restrictions were to be lifted for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens, the then-Christian Democratic chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Elmar Brok proposed fingerprinting them to ensure they did not abuse the benefits system.
British tabloids associated Romanians with crime, often using descriptive words such as “beggar”, “thief”, or “squatter”. Even more respectable papers used metaphors to describe Romanians and Bulgarians as traveling in “floods” or “flocks”. Meanwhile, in France, which is enjoying the literal fruits of labor from migrants, Paris still does not agree with the European Parliament and European Commission that Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia are ready to join the Schengen area.
Romania imposed a lockdown harsher than that of any of the nations mentioned above, with the military deployed to control the shelter order. Those caught violating the lockdown or curfew paid a heavy price, between 2,000 and a staggering 20,000 lei (414 – 4,141 Euro) while the average monthly salary is only around 3,000 lei (620 Euro). The punishment for violating the lockdown was so severe as to not overwhelm one of the most ailing healthcare systems in Europe. At the end of the day, Western Europe benefits not only from skilled agricultural workers but also poaches Eastern European medical professionals, creating hospital staff shortages in the Eastern Countries that could have catastrophic consequences in the midst of a global pandemic. Between 2009 and 2015 Romania lost 50% of its doctors to immigration and still today Western European countries are recruiting physicians for its own aging and increasingly sick population. In 2017 the Romanian College of Medicine estimated that 6,000 of their trained doctors were employed in Germany and 4,000 more in both France and Britain.
Western Europeans have temporarily stopped complaining about Central and Eastern Europeans now that they have realized just how essential professionals from the region are to their way of life or perhaps because they have bigger fish to fry. Only time will tell if they are truly grateful for these migrants’ sacrifices or if after the end of the pandemic the status quo will reestablish itself.