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24th Aug 2019

Opinion

How EU agriculture policy endangers migrants' lives

  • If the EU really wants to tackle irregular migration, it would do well to start addressing the way food is grown, harvested and marketed in Europe (Photo: tpmartins)

European Union leaders now acknowledge that the 'migration crisis' has been replaced by a 'political' one fostered by the far-right.

Yet the prospects of migration being managed rationally and sustainably in Europe are still dim, as the hysteria over the UN Global Compact on migration, due to be endorsed in Marrakech this week, shows.

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Talk of legal channels for migrant labourers to reach Europe, for instance, is limited and little attention is paid to the demand for exploitable migrant labour.

In the summer of 2018, the media briefly shone a spotlight on the plight of exploited migrant agricultural workers in Italy when dozens were killed in car crashes.

The authorities' response was in line with recommendations the European Commission suggested in its 2017 assessment of migration policies: crack down on abusive employment practices in the hope that the incentives for hiring undocumented workers would go down, thereby reducing the 'pull factors' for irregular migration.

This approach, though more helpful than solely focusing on keeping migrants out, is doomed to fail.

A new report commissioned by the Open Society European Policy Institute, authored by the European University Institute's Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, and focused on the agriculture sector in Italy, outlines its shortcomings and offers a more constructive way forward.

First, it is important to acknowledge the broader structural elements of the EU agri-food system, where recourse to exploitable migrant labour is widespread - and is not confined to southern Europe.

The flagship Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which accounts for the largest chunk of the EU budget, has tended to favour large-scale, high-yield production, pushing prices down and squeezing small farmers.

And supermarket chains, often acting as cartels, have rolled out practices – like auctions where producers are expected to outbid each other by lowering the price of their goods – which force even well-intentioned farmers to cut labour costs, the only costs they still control.

Italian example

Secondly, the research shows how in Italy, where the numbers of migrant farm workers are particularly high, repressive approaches do not work.

A 2016 law targeting gang masters and the employers using their services, for instance, seems effective on paper.

However, salaries are still mainly paid under the counter, with labourers hired on fixed-term contracts that only reflect a small part of their actual working hours and days.

Finally, EU and national laws include protection schemes for victims of trafficking and exploitation to lessen employers' power over them and to encourage them to report abuse.

However, implementation is weak and the number of people accessing this type of protection is extremely limited.

So what can be done to fix the system?

The OSEPI-EUI report lays out a number of recommendations, from introducing incentives in the CAP subsidy system so that farmers providing their workers with proper contracts and pay are rewarded, to outlawing unfair trading practices in the retail sector.

Ethical produce

In much the same way as organic goods are certified by pan-European bodies, labelling schemes which provide information about labour conditions could also be introduced, satisfying a growing demand for ethical produce.

Data highlighted in the report show how the numbers of migrant workers employed in Italian agriculture have risen over the last decade, while entry permits have been drastically reduced.

The shortfall in the number of available workers is being increasingly met by mobile EU workers, irregular migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom would not be risking their lives to reach Italy and then applying for international protection if they could arrive legally as migrant workers.

Undeclared work is not a 'pull factor' for the vast majority of prospective migrants.

Most migrants, like most European citizens, would rather have proper contracts, pay taxes and benefit from the social services they are contributing to rather than toil in the fields for up to fifteen hours a day, in dangerous conditions, for meagre pay and under the watchful gaze of gang masters.

Simply trying to stop employers from hiring irregular migrants without addressing the reasons driving them to do so will do nothing to change a system which is failing farm labourers and owners alike.

Crucially, it is also failing consumers, who are often unaware of the fact that the tomatoes and clementines they purchase are picked in conditions akin to modern slavery – or that the prices they pay are actually inflated by the many middlemen taking a cut along the chain, who often include organised criminal groups.

If the EU really wants to tackle irregular migration, it would do well to start addressing the way food is grown, harvested and marketed in Europe.

Giulia Lagana is a senior analyst on EU migration and asylum policies with the Open Society European Policy Institute

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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