Following concerns regarding a shortage of labour in the agri-food sector, the European Commission has issued new practical advice to ensure that seasonal workers can travel to work in critical occupations. However, the lack of agricultural workforce remains a potential threat to the entire European food supply chain.
The guidelines, released on Monday (30 March), come on the back of requests made by EU leaders, seeking to address practical concerns of citizens and companies affected by the measures taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus, as well as of national authorities implementing the measures.
They complement the recently adopted guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services, published on 16 March.
The list of critical workers includes food sector workers, hospital workers, communications network technicians and people working on essential infrastructure, as well as those who transport medical protective gear such as face masks and gowns.
As borders are increasingly being closed, thousands of seasonal workers have been left unable to reach the farms that rely on their labour just as the harvest season is beginning for many crops.
In a statement, the Commission says that internal border controls are an understandable step to contain the coronavirus, but it is imperative that critical workers are able to reach their destination without delay.
“Thousands of women and men working hard to keep us safe, healthy and with food on the table need to cross EU borders to go to work,” said EU Commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit.
“It is our collective responsibility to ensure that they are not hindered in their movement while taking every precaution to avoid further spread of the pandemic,” the Luxembourgish Commissioner added.
As for seasonal workers in the agricultural sector, member states are being asked to exchange information on their different needs in order to establish specific procedures to ensure a smooth passage for such workers and respond to labour shortages as a result of the crisis.
On his twitter account, Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said that the recognition of seasonal farmworkers as critical employees was due to his initiative and that these recommendations are necessary to ensure EU food security
Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann, Europe’s People Party (EPP) spokesman on agriculture, hailed the Commission’s decision as “important and timely.” “We need this in agriculture,” he said.
The news came just after EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA warned of the “devastating” impacts of labour shortages.
Contacted by EURACTIV, they welcomed the guidelines by the Commission as they address the urgent issue of free movement of seasonal workers.
“We believe further clarification is necessary as to whether all employees in the farming and forestry sectors are included in the critical occupation list,” COPA-COGECA’s statement said.
An EU problem
The lack of agricultural workforce remains a major concern all across Europe.
According to the French agriculture minister Didier Guillaume, France will need over 200,000 people in the next three months to cope with the announced lack of foreign farm labourers.
Germany has estimated that its agriculture sector will need about 300,000 seasonal workers to help with fruit and vegetable harvests.
German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner is in close contact with the country’s interior ministry on the issue. She told German TV ARD that the country needs to find a balance between the need to prevent the coronavirus spreading and the need for seasonal workers to help on farms.
“We must find an answer, we cannot leave farmers hanging on this,” Klöckner added.
Spain, one of the countries most hit by the pandemic, is experiencing a lack of seasonal workers from Morocco. Its farmers’ organisations warned that the supply of workers has dropped by 40%.
According to Italy’s farmers’ organisation Coldiretti, more than 25% of the food produced in Italy relies on the hands of over 370,000 regular seasonal workers coming from abroad every year.
However, this year the agricultural workforce is lacking either because foreign labourers are blocked in their countries of origin or feel that coming to Italy would pose health risks.
Safeguarding of workers
Kristjan Bragason, general secretary of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism (EFFAT), told EURACTIV that, while the guidelines provide some clarity and are helpful in some respects, they fail to adequately address issues in the sector.
“These guidelines fail to address multiple problems faced by these workers, such as social security, safety equipment, housing conditions and healthcare,” he said, adding that it is unclear how social security benefits would work in the event that workers are unable to return to their country of origin due to restrictions on movement.
He highlighted that workers often live in housing where it is “impossible” to respect precautionary measures and social distancing, which is a hazard both for workers and the entire region.
Bragason added that workers are often not properly informed of either the safety precautions or the consequences of contracting the virus, which he said makes them “especially vulnerable.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]