Protecting the seasonal workers in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Migrant seasonal workers pick straberries in a field in Neuoetting, Germany. [Jesús Fernández/Shutterstock]

If we have fresh strawberries on our table these days, if we can enjoy delicious asparagus from our fields, it is thanks to the people who work outside. Quite often, they are seasonal workers, and we have to protect them, write Dan Nica and Jens Geier.

Dan Nica and Jens Geier are the heads Romanian and German S&D delegations, respectively, in the European Parliament.

Because the pandemic did not mean isolation for all European citizens. Tens of thousands of seasonal workers took risks and moved, often in unsuitable conditions, in order to work in the agricultural sector. Moreover, inadequate working and accommodation conditions awaited them at the destination farms, in the context of the danger posed by COVID-19.

Workers should not be exposed to corona dangers. We cannot accommodate them in such a way that they cannot maintain social distancing and cannot comply with hygiene regulations. We have to change that. We will work for this change as social democrats. These people are our colleagues, without whom many beautiful sides of summer would not work. 

As representatives of the social democratic parties in the countries most affected by this phenomenon of cross-border labour migration – Romania and Germany – we have been directly involved, from the very beginning.

We have pointed out to the relevant ministries in Bucharest and Berlin the irregularities and abuses to which seasonal workers are exposed, and we have launched political and legislative actions aimed at guaranteeing decent social standards for all.

In many cases, employers have cynically and illegally taken advantage of the pandemic to impose a work regime that is not in line with European standards. As found by the government controls we requested, some of these employers speculated on the lack of ambiguity of the existing rules.

Asparagus is not critical to the system. There is no reason to exploit workers under the pretext of emergency measures.

Therefore, the development of specific legislation become a priority, both at national and European level, in order to define a common regulatory framework to protect cross-border workers.

First, we – as a political group – obtained from the Commission additional guarantees for the protection of workers, in the context of the classification of SARS-CoV-2 as level 3 biological agent.

Specifically, seasonal workers should be considered essential workers, along with nurses, drivers and employees in food and cleaning – in short, all those who make it possible for our companies to move forward in these difficult times.

Even if S&D has advocated for including the workers in the highest risk category, the Commission’s guarantees for occupational health and safety are sufficient for the time being. The revision of the Directive on biological agents is necessary and we will take steps to do it, in order to have a regulatory framework that can meet the epidemiological challenges.

In addition, following a cross-party approach, the European Parliament is debating the situation of seasonal workers and will vote on a resolution proposing a set of common standards.

At the same time, we have initiated reforms of labour legislation in Germany and in Romania, and with the support of our colleagues in the S&D Group in the European Parliament; we are launching a joint action with the national parliaments of the workforce’s main countries of origin and destination.

The reform of national legislation in the Member States is essential in order to prevent the type of discrimination we see against European citizens such as the Romanians employed on farms in Germany, or working in other fields characterized by poor working conditions, like tourism, construction and home care services.

S&D will act in the near future to coordinate the efforts ensuring the rights of cross-border workers in the EU.

Specifically, it is necessary to ensure safe travel conditions for all seasonal workers; decent accommodation and working conditions that allow social distancing; precise occupational safety rules, monitored by the competent authorities; employment contracts handed to workers and which establish collectively negotiated wages and decent health insurance; information and assistance in the mother tongue of the workers and contact points for unforeseen situations.

Situations such as the recent ones in agriculture also force the Council to overcome the deadlock in the revision of the Social Security Coordination Regulation.

The pandemic and the economic difficulties can in no way be a pretext for abdicating the European values ​​and the fundamental objective of the European Union to provide decent working and living conditions for all its citizens.

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