Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Coronavirus

As restrictions lift, EU wants Romanian farm workers back

  • Protests by Romanian care home workers in Vienna over working conditions (Photo: Elena Popa)

As western European countries gear up to restart the economy, they are looking to Romania and its farm workers for a helping hand.

First to do so is Germany, poised to relax entry restrictions for EU seasonal workers as early as this week.

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  • The Romanian prime minister ordered an investigation over lack of social distance for flights organised for farm workers (Photo: Elena Popa)

The country's agriculture minister, Julia Klöckner, announced that workers will be allowed to enter Germany by land and air to help harvest crops.

Many of the workers come from Romania, as well as Poland and Bulgaria.

Like many European countries, Germany restricted foreign travel, but in April, farmers - fearful that their strawberry and asparagus harvests will go to waste - were allowed to organised charter flights to bring in the much-needed workforce.

Relying on the money raised by working abroad, workers then flooded airports across Romania, en-route to Germany.

The Romanian prime minister, Ludovic Orban, called for an investigation into the events which followed, with seasonal workers awaiting departure kept tightly-packed in parking lots and at airport entrances, no social distancing or safety measures in place.

On German soil, the labour law got caught in the crosshairs when seasonal workers protested last month against poor working conditions.

Complaints have also been issued against several slaughterhouses across Germany where hundreds of Romanian workers got infected with Covid-19.

The Romanian ambassador to Germany said a new law is being drafted that will bring important changes to the status of seasonal workers employed in Germany.

Dozens of Romanian seasonal workers protested in front of the consular office in Bonn complaining about unpaid wages by contractors.

Germany needs about 300,000 workers to run its farms during harvest season. This year, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the government capped the number at 80,000.

The number is set to rise as travel restrictions are lifted.

Austria

Austria is also reliant on Romanian seasonal workers and this relationship is not without contention. Elena Popa is one of the 43,000 Romania caregivers working in Austria, tending to the country's elderly.

Speaking to EUobserver, Popa said that some of the intermediary agencies responsible for connecting caregivers to employers take advantage of Romanian workers.

"Romanians working as caretakers are deceived, misled and even threatened by some of these agencies. There are over 800 of them in Austria and just as many in Romania recruiting people to work abroad. Romanian authorities are unwilling to offer us support."

She explained that some intermediary agencies scam workers into paying hefty commissions for paperwork they do not need and are not required by Austrian authorities.

Together with other colleagues, Popa formed a local organisation that has been holding rallies for better working conditions for Romanian caretakers employed in Austria.

UK

Across the channel, the UK left the EU at least partly to reduce its exposure to immigrants, including Romanian seasonal workers. Now it wants them back.

Desperately-needed workers for the British farms, that risk losing fruit and vegetables harvest, have been allowed back into the country via organised chartered flights.

The relationship between western European countries and Romanian seasonal workers is a marriage of convenience.

Wealthier countries need workers to do the jobs that locals have rejected, and hundreds of thousands of Romanians need these jobs as they pay better than what they would make back home.

Romania has a minimum monthly wage of about €500. Wages for seasonal workers employed in Western Europe are reporter to begin at around €1,500.

A group of Romanian MEPs have promised an overhaul of EU legislation regarding seasonal work, to prevent abuses and maintain decent and fair working conditions throughout all member states.

The new EU law also promises a stronger oversight over intermediary agencies and firms subcontracting seasonal workers services.

Author bio

Cristian Gherasim is a freelance journalist contributing to EUobserver, Euronews, EU Reporter, Katoikos, Von Mises Institute, and bne IntelliNews, with a particular focus on European and regional affairs.

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