Cheap, Expendable and Imperiled The Systematic Exploitation of Harvest Workers in Europe

Millions of seasonal workers across the Continent are responsible for picking much of the low-cost produce available in European supermarkets. But an international research project reveals that many of these workers face abysmal conditions – and the COVID-19 crisis has made things even worse.
By Nils Klawitter, Steffen Lüdke und Hannes Schrader, with additional reporting by Stavros Malichudis
Seasonal worker George Mitache in front of his home in the Romanian village of Băcani: "We were basically locked away.”

Seasonal worker George Mitache in front of his home in the Romanian village of Băcani: "We were basically locked away.”

Foto: Ioana Moldovan / Est&Ost / DER SPIEGEL

When George Mitache heard of a job in Germany in early April, he could hardly believe his luck. An acquaintance from a neighboring village was looking for people who could work the strawberry harvest in the country. The intermediary claimed Mitache would receive 5,000 to 6,000 euros ($5,700 to $6,900) for three months of work on a farm near the western German city of Bonn, and said that the flight and room and board would be included.

Mitache lives with his pregnant wife and young daughter in Băcani, a village in the east of Romania. Their house is made of roughcast clay, its only room’s walls decorated with small plastic butterflies. A gas stove is located at the entrance, and a narrow path leads through the backyard to the wooden outhouse. The only running water is available at the well some 400 meters (1,300 feet) away. Vaslui is among Romania’s poorest districts. Mictache, 28 years old, wiry with blue eyes and short hair, recalls his time in Germany as a terrible one.

When he boarded the chartered plane on April 24, he was still in good spirits. He wanted to use the money he would earn to build a new house. "I’ve already bought a few iron bars,” he says.

When Mitache arrived in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel had just called for people in Germany to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to meet as few people as possible in order to protect themselves. But Mitache and his neighbors were confused by the security measures. "There were no masks for us and the buses that brought us to the farm were totally full,” he says. Mitache and the other Romanians didn’t complain, not even about their accommodations: a shack made of particle board in a tractor shed. Ten of them lived in a single room.

Giant refrigerators rumbled inside, even at night, making it difficult for the workers to sleep. Eleven people from Mitache’s neighborhood in Băcani had come along, including the man who lined up the jobs for them. He claims that their identity cards were taken away from them at the very beginning. "We were basically locked away,” says Mitache. "We had to work off the cost of the flight and the food, they suddenly told us.” The middleman had promised them a wage of 7 euros per hour. Mitache only learned later that the minimum wage in Germany is 9.35 euros. But that was irrelevant anyway, given that the fees were calculated according to performance: 3 euros per box of strawberries. "We needed at least 45 minutes for that,” he says. They often worked 10-hours days.

Two weeks after their arrival, the Romanians wanted to know how much money they had earned. They were told that they hadn’t even paid off their plane tickets. The intermediary explained that if they didn’t like it, they could leave. "After three weeks, we asked the German boss about the promised work contracts,” he says. "Then he got angry and yelled at us that we should leave the farm immediately.” That was May 13. "We had to sign something, then we were out on the street.”

Catalina Guia, who works for a counseling center for the German trade union DBG in Düsseldorf is familiar with the case. She also comes from Romania and met the group in Leverkusen. By that point they had already spent four days on the street. Mitache says they had hardly eaten, and because they only had Romanian money, they couldn’t buy anything. "We were afraid we would be arrested if we begged.” They slept in the train stations in Remagen and Bonn. "This isn’t the only case in which workers are being cheated out of their wages,” Guia says, "but it’s a particularly blatant one.”

A Shadow Army

Mitache is part of a shadow army of migrant workers that deploys across Europe to harvest asparagus, strawberries, plums and peaches. Their low wages ensure that the prices for fruit and vegetables in European supermarkets remain low. According to trade unionists, they number approximately 10 million, not counting illegal workers. In normal years, 24,000 German businesses alone employ around 300,000 seasonal workers.

Together with the Lighthouse Reports investigative network and journalists from Mediapart and Euronews, DER SPIEGEL conducted reporting in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece in order to document working conditions for seasonal migrant workers. Dozens of interviews with workers and entrepreneurs, trade unionists and politicians and the review of work contracts and internal company documents and secretly taken photos and videos reveal a pattern of systematic exploitation in the heart of Europe. Even as the companies collect large subsidies from the European Union, agricultural workers who are risking their lives in the COVID-19 crisis are being cheated out of their wages.

These include workers like Mitache. And Ahmed Harlui, who harvests fruit as a cheap laborer in Spain. And Nicolae Bahan, a Romanian who was flown into the German town of Bad Krozingen to save this year’s asparagus harvest. He worked for a company that prides itself on having adhered to all the requirements. Bahan lived in a run-down container and contracted COVID-19. He didn’t survive his work assignment. He died in late April.

Worker housing in Spain's Huelva region: Europe’s most powerful instrument for agricultural policy doesn’t take human welfare standards into account.

Worker housing in Spain's Huelva region: Europe’s most powerful instrument for agricultural policy doesn’t take human welfare standards into account.

Foto: Zach Campbell / DER SPIEGEL

People like Bahan, Farlui and Mitache are essentially hidden from the world. Their huts or housing containers are usually located outside municipalities, and surrounded by hedges, screens or barbed wire. They are meant to remain invisible.

But the coronavirus has shone a light on the precarious conditions of the migrant workers, on the risk of infections in the cramped accommodations where they live - and on the politicians’ lack of interest in their situation.

With the establishment of the European Labor Authority last year, an institution now exists that has been tasked with guaranteeing "fair mobility” for seasonal workers and "encouraging” inspections of companies. So far, though, it hasn’t led to much improvement. This is also partly due to the fact that Europe’s most powerful instrument for agricultural policy doesn’t take human welfare standards into account. Working conditions don’t affect where the billions in subsidies are distributed.

"Animals Have a Better Lobby”

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) comprises 38 percent of the total EU budget and is the largest pot of money in Brussels, with 58 billion euros per year. A large part of this is paid to farmers and food processors, and mainly goes toward paying for land and premiums and to making direct payments. It remains true that if you have a lot of land, you get a lot of money. That’s why the biggest ventures are the ones who benefit, not those who pay fair wages and therefore have higher costs.

CAP directives don’t contain a word about protections for seasonal workers or about how to prevent illegal employment or modern slavery. "Animals have a better lobby than migrant workers do,” says Arnd Spahn of EFFAT, an umbrella organization of European trade unions representing the food, agriculture and tourism sectors.

EFFAT’s office in Brussels has barely a dozen employees. It sees its role as that of challenging the farmers’ lobby, which has so far prevented social criteria from playing a role in the CAP. The German Farmers’ Association and the center-right Christian Democratic Union party have long argued that agricultural policy is not social policy. Germany hasn’t even ratified Convention 184 of the International Labor Organization on work safety in agriculture, Spahn points out. The regulation, for instance, provides for separate toilets for men and women working in the fields. Germany’s Agricultural Ministry says the convention hasn’t been ratified because the required standards are in part already regulated or exceeded by German law.

It has long been claimed that conditions like those in Southern Europe are impossible in Germany, a country known for its work safety regulations.

Approaching the Schaefer fruit farm in the hills of the Rhineland, in western Germany, where Mitache worked, visitors can recognize the housing containers in front of the warehouse from afar. A few workers sit in the sun. In one corner of the large warehouse, you can see the two-story residential sheds made of particle board. Photos from the interior show a claustrophobic room with 10 well-made beds.

In the trade press, fruit farmer Daniel Schaefer likes to convey the image that his business is a model farm. It’s part of the Landgard producers’ cooperative, one of the largest of its kind, with over 3,000 members and approximately 2 billion euros in revenue. In 2019 alone, the cooperative received more than 6 million euros in marketing aid from the EU. Schaefer’s farm also benefited from this.

According to Schaefer, everything is done correctly on his farm. And in a written statement, the operation rejected most of the allegations against it. It claims the hygiene rules were strictly adhered to, and that the farm provided and paid for several meals daily with "a different meat every day.” It claims ID cards were returned after two days at the latest, that everyone was given an employment contract and that they were to be reimbursed for flight costs if they fulfilled the contract.

It also argues that the "performance-related minimum hourly wage” even allowed workers to earn more than what they are legally entitled to, and that the group connected to George Mitache had been "unmotivated.” It says that, as an employer, one "doesn’t have to put up with everything either.” It also claims that the housing as well as the company’s hygiene compliance had been monitored by the authorities, adding that there had been no complaints.

The answers from the authorities in the Ahrweiler district paint a different picture – and also show how indulgent the auditors have been. As early as the beginning of April, an inspection by the district found that COVID-19 protection measures were not being maintained and that there was no disinfectant in kitchens and bathrooms. Schaefer made improvements.

The building supervisory authority objected that nobody should have been housed in the upper floor shed, where Mitache slept, because there was no building permit for it. The Schaefer operation was allowed to carry on anyway. The district argues that it could no longer immediately ban the company from using the wooden shed after the company committed itself to permanently opening main doors to let in air and began implementing further fire-protection measures. The consensus was that the situation would be tolerated until the end of the season in September. And the occupancy of the rooms? The district officials said they could not check this themselves "in the absence of relevant regulations” in state law. They also argued that this responsibility lies with the state labor inspectorate, which was already looking into the issue, as the customs authorities also appeared to be doing.

Schaefer claims that the Romanians left voluntarily and signed letters of resignation.

Guia, the trade unionist, argues that it’s hard to imagine that people would voluntarily resign, only to stand on the street without anything. Now that organizations like the DGB trade union have set up contact points for migrant workers, an increasing number of similar cases have come to light. There have been repeated cases involving not only questionable housing conditions on farms that became COVID-19 hotspots, but also withheld wages and arbitrary wage deductions for things like internet access.

A Widespread Problem

Similar dubious working conditions prompted 150 harvest workers to protest at an asparagus farm in Bornheim, near Bonn, in May. They had been ordered there despite the fact that the farm had declared bankruptcy in the spring. The public prosecutor’s office is investigating the business for tax evasion and social security fraud. The owners, who could not be reached for comment, apparently spent millions on expensive vintage cars.

Even organic food producers don’t necessarily treat their seasonal workers any better, as demonstrated by the Spanish company Berrynest. In Huelva, in the extreme southwest of Spain, the company grows blueberries, raspberries and strawberries which it sells under the brand name Bionest. They argue that this takes place strictly according to ecological criteria. Berrynest, one of the largest exporters of organic berries in Europe, also supplies German supermarkets.

Hueva is the Continent’s orchard – a sea of plastic tarps stretching to the horizon. One-third of all European strawberries are grown here before getting loaded into trucks and shipped northwards. The Spanish call the berries "el oro rojo,” the red gold.

Berrynest did brisk business during the pandemic. While the vast majority of Spaniards were barely allowed to leave their homes for weeks, the harvest workers continued to toil in the fields. The strawberries had to be collected before they rotted. Suddenly, the invisible migrants had become essential workers.

Recently, the Berrynest website posted a thank you to the workers. "Without you, all of this would have been impossible,” it states. It claims that everything is being done to protect the workers and keep production going. A promotional video shows horses galloping across fields, relaxed workers strolling across a meadow. The film claims that the workers and their families are offered a bright future.

But Ahmed Farlui says that's all a lie. The 42-year-old has been working in the fields of Huelva for years. He doesn’t want to give his real name out of fear the farmers might seek to retaliate. Farlui is one of four harvest workers DER SPIEGEL has interviewed about work at Berrynest. The men and women worked there for 42 euros, gross, per day, which is below the minimum wage of 48.54 euros for seasonal workers in Spain. Despite the danger of infection, he says, they worked without masks or disinfectants, and couldn’t even wash their hands regularly.

Field workers in the Huelva region

Field workers in the Huelva region

Foto: Zach Campbell / DER SPIEGEL

A photo taken by a worker shows harvest workers in late April under a plastic tarpaulin, shoulder to shoulder, with no masks. According to a complaint from employees to the authorities, nine large companies in the region, including Berrynest, have done nothing to protect workers.

According to the letter, the workers are afraid of getting infected. Few dared to ask for more protection, it argues, because it was clear to everyone that if they did, they would be fired. "They have stripped us of our dignity,” says one Spanish worker. "I feel like a slave,” says Farlui.

Berrynest didn’t answer detailed questions sent by DER SPIEGEL. Company head Juan Soltero refused a request for a telephone interview.

So far, there have been only a few COVID-19 cases among harvest workers in Huelva. But in northern Spain, it is currently becoming clear just how high the risk is. The authorities there have had to quarantine several communities after the virus largely spread among harvest workers.

Although the inspectors with the labor inspectorate are theoretically able to check the conditions in the fields in Huelva, the authorities called off the inspections at the height of the pandemic because the risk of infection was too great. They now check in by telephone to see if everything is being done correctly.

Andalusian trade unionist José Antonio Brazo claims that systematic exploitation is taking place in Huelva. Few of the companies pay the minimum wage, he says, and cheating workers out of overtime and paid working days is a routine practice. He claims that workers are often at the mercy of the companies, even if they live legally in the country. "We’ve received the most complaints from Berrynest workers,” Brazo says.

Women like Nadia are under particular pressure, he says. She was brought to Huelva shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic to help in the fields – much like thousands of other Moroccans every year. Nadia lives in a small trailer with five other Moroccan women. The trailer is much too narrow and has a dirty bathroom.

Andalusian trade unionist José Antonio Brazo argues that systematic exploitation is taking place.

Andalusian trade unionist José Antonio Brazo argues that systematic exploitation is taking place.

Foto: Zach Campbell / DER SPIEGEL

Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said after a visit in February that the conditions in the settlements on the outskirts of Huelva’s fields "rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world.” He said that the failure of authorities to enforce laws can never be used to justify disregard for employees’ basic rights.

Female harvest workers have repeatedly reported rapes and inhuman treatment in recent years. Although nothing like this has happened to Nadia, she remains afraid of her boss, and asked that her real name not be used in this story.

The strawberry season ended a while ago and she’d like to return to her home country, but Spain has closed its borders because of the pandemic. As soon as they are open again, she says, she wants to leave. "I will never come back,” she says.

EU Parliamentary Effort

It took George Mitache and his neighbors from Băcani almost a week to make it back home from the Schaefer farm. A policewoman at the train station in Remagen, where they slept for two days, gave them apples and bought them tickets to Bonn. There, a Romanian priest helped them, as did Vasile Stoica, the mayor of their village.

Stoica receives visitors in his meeting room in one of the few two-story buildings in Băcani. He says that when he saw Facebook photos of people from his village dragging themselves along German country roads with their luggage, "we organized vans to bring them home.” The pastor in Bonn, he says, had already told him by phone that the men weren’t doing well.

Brussels is also finally starting to take notice of how dangerous life is right now for the migrant workers tending Europe’s crops. A group of members of the European Parliament recently drafted a cross-party resolution demanding that agricultural policy finally take into account the rights of migrant workers. They claim that the crisis has "exacerbated social dumping and the existing precariousness of the situations of many mobile workers” and revealed deficits in the implementation of existing legislation. Of the 705 members of the European Parliament, 593 voted to adopt the resolution in June.

But it's also not the first resolution of this kind. And in the past, outrage over this exploitative system has never lasted very long. Nevertheless, the parliamentarians are hoping that the COVID-19 crisis will help cement fair working conditions and more intensive inspections, which could offer a ray of hope for millions of seasonal workers.

Guia, the trade unionist, has reported the case of the 11 Romanians from the Schaefer farm to the state government in Rhineland-Palatinate, where the farm is located. She wants to claim 1,200 euros in outstanding wages per person, as soon as the workers have given their consent.

George Mitache has written off the money. He no longer has any faith in receiving any payments from Germany. On this warm evening in late June, he is visited by his in-laws. He carries his daughter on his arm, a cat strokes his legs. They talk about the intermediary from the neighboring village. What the man promised was "almost all a lie.” He says the idea of an intermediary is a strange job, something he couldn’t do himself. "I’m not very good at playing with other people’s hopes.”

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