The ongoing debate over the inclusion of provisions on workers’ rights in the reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has kicked up a notch with the publication of a letter from more than 300 European organisations advocating for social conditionality.
The letter, published on Wednesday (17 February), argues that direct payments should be conditional on respect for the applicable working and employment conditions under relevant collective agreements. This includes national and EU law, as well as International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.
While CAP subsidies will now be conditional on respect for basic environmental standards, public health and animal welfare, compliance with human and labour rights currently has no role in the allocation of direct payments.
This is despite the fact that workers’ conditions in the agricultural sector are some of the “most challenging and precarious” of the EU economy, according to signatories, who highlight the high levels of labour abuses and exploitation.
At least ten million people are employed in European agriculture, mainly as seasonal workers, day labourers or in other insecure statuses, with as many as 61.2% of EU agri-workers engaged in informal employment.
The importance of agrifood workers was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading EU institutions and national governments to define those workers as essential. Despite this recognition, the practical experience of many farm workers remains one of “struggle, deprivation and violations of human rights”, signatories say.
“Inhuman working conditions, poor wages, long working hours, a high proportion of undeclared work and sub-standard housing are only some of the daily hardships faced by farmworkers in Europe,” the letter states, adding that they often amount to forms of “modern slavery”.
Kristjan Bragason, general secretary of the European federation of food, agriculture and tourism trade unions (EFFAT), said it was “unacceptable to see that respect for human and labour rights play absolutely no role in the allocation of the EU CAP direct payments, especially when CAP receives a third of the total EU budget”.
“Workers’ rights are not red tape; without respect for labour standards, CAP will never be truly sustainable,” added Bragason, who is one of the signatories of the letter.
‘Beyond CAP’s remit’
Amid growing calls for its inclusion in the CAP reform, social conditionality is proving to be a thorny issue in the ongoing CAP negotiations between EU countries and the European Parliament.
The Parliament has offered staunch support for the inclusion of social conditionality, voting through a series of amendments in October on the shape of the post-2020 CAP which included mandatory references to ‘social conditionality’.
The proposed conditionality would cover various areas such as working time, health and safety, and housing for all workers employed in agriculture, including mobile and migrant labourers.
However, the same cannot be said for the Council, which brings together the EU27.
In a special committee on agriculture (SCA) meeting on Monday (8 February), an EU source told EURACTIV that nearly all member states raised issues with the inclusion of social conditionality in the CAP reform.
Their main objections included the fact that this was not in the original Commission proposal, and also that this falls outside the remit of the CAP, which has already been subject to environmental conditionality.
Among those most opposed to the inclusion of social conditionality are Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, and Lithuania.
So far, there are three tabled options for the inclusion of social conditionality in the CAP reform.
These include: having the social conditionality (with penalties) conditional on court rulings; including a chapter on social conditionality in national strategic plans; and developing a specific provision on “implementation conditions” that the Commission would check before approving the national strategic plans.
None of the options currently in discussions seem to have a clear majority among EU farm ministers.
Likewise, EU farmers association COPA-COGECA recently warned EURACTIV that the proposals to include workers rights in the CAP could be problematic.
Paulo Gouveia, chief policy adviser at COPA-COGECA, said he is “very concerned that the current process of CAP reform will increase red tape and administrative burden for farmers”, stressing that “social conditionality should not be linked to labour rights and/or wages/salaries”.
“Labour rights are already established nationally through statutory law or collective bargaining, so there is no need to impose additional burdens on employers at a EU level,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]