26th Feb 2024


MEPs look to Spain for EU breakthrough on seasonal workers

  • Germany's Spargelzeit season attracts thousands of Polish and Romanian workers (Photo: rainy city)
Listen to article

As summer ends, so does the harvest season.

In Romania, farmers have been bustling, presenting ripe strawberries, cherries, and crisp lettuce in markets spread across towns and cities.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

In Germany, the beloved asparagus season "Spargelzeit" has ended. Harvesting asparagus and berries by hand requires both skill and endurance.

The harvesters are paid per quantity and if the quality of the harvested products is inferior, they receive less money.

Brandenburg — the region next to the German capital — is famous for its asparagus. Its sandy soil is perfect for growing asparagus but makes harvesting very hard.

In the summertime, the fields turn into a desert-like scene and the workers spend hours bent over cutting the asparagus spears.

Many will later pay with their health because the hours in the sun without any form of protection increases their risk of skin cancer.

Who is willing to take this tough job? Last summer, of the 303,867 people in Germany's agricultural sector, 120,249 were foreigners predominantly from Romania and Poland.

Some 46 percent of these non-German seasonal workers were employed as short-term workers, which means that their employers do not pay social security contributions.

The concept of short-term work goes back to the old days when pupils or retirees would help during the harvesting season.

For 70 days, workers can be employed in the agricultural sector without social insurance.

However, this is only legal, if the short-term employment constitutes a supplementary income and the employee has another main and insurable occupation.

But this is not the case for many seasonal workers.

The "fair agricultural work" initiative (Faire Landarbeit) is a coalition of trade unions and church organisations that provide information and legal assistance to seasonal workers from the EU and third countries.

Multiple times during the harvesting season they hand out leaflets about German labour law in several languages and talk to the workers.

Numerous workers reveal to them that they rely solely on these seasonal jobs.

Last autumn, Marina S. encountered challenges when she was lacking information for her tax declaration in Romania.

She and her husband Andrei S., both of whom had worked on a German farm for three consecutive years, were denied information on their social rights by their employer.

Their contracts had been limited to two weeks, several times in a row. Despite being advised to lodge an official complaint, Marina hesitated, fearing repercussions on future employment opportunities.

The German government brought forward some improvements for seasonal workers. For example, employers have to report that their workers have health insurance.

However, many employers use private group health insurance schemes that do not cover all illnesses and treatments. In addition, not all employers fulfil their obligations.

Mihail P., after suffering a dental emergency, was left with an exorbitant hospital bill and no assistance from his employer or German authorities on insurance coverage.

Neither his employer nor the German authorities helped him clarify his situation. He does not have a job in Romania and will now have to spend his whole income on his medical treatment.

This is not a German problem. It is a European problem.

The EU's open labour market offers many benefits, especially for countries like Germany which need workers.

However, sending countries like Romania and especially mobile workers have been losing out for far too long.

If they are no longer able to cut asparagus or pick berries — who pays for their pensions or unemployment benefits? Many work extensively in Germany without any social insurance.

This neglect of EU citizens' rights threatens the European ethos of equal treatment and freedom of movement.

The EU regulation for the coordination of social security systems is a law designed to prevent such situations but it urgently needs updating.

The European Parliament and the Council have been negotiating a revision of the regulation for years and time is running out.

Spanish hope

After a period of slow progress in the negotiations between the institutions, the Spanish presidency of the EU Council has declared this reform one of their priorities.

It remains to be seen though, whether the Council can overcome its difficulties and finally find a common position internally. Some member states profiting from the situation seem to intentionally delay further progress on this important file.

The negotiators are faced with a few remaining open questions, namely the principle of prior notification to ensure the provision of social security coverage for mobile workers and the question of which member state should be responsible for paying unemployment benefits of cross-border workers.

The European Parliament negotiation team agreed that digital solutions could on the one hand reduce the administrative burden of companies while allowing for effective controls to prevent fraud and exploitation.

Finding a solution here could finally deliver much-needed reforms. For the Parliament, the only solution that can be found is one that provides better protection for workers than before.

In addition, and as a second step, the member states as well as the Commission must guarantee to carry out the necessary controls to enforce the practical implementation of the law, together with a reinforced involvement of the European Labour Authority.

It will be vital to see whether the Spanish EU presidency can follow up on the good intentions.

The negotiation team of the European Parliament is still optimistic to find a compromise that works for all workers — especially the most vulnerable — and to prevent shameful practices as experienced by Marina and Mihail.

This would be a step towards an economy that works for all people — not for just some of them.

Author bio

Gabriele Bischoff is a German MEP and vice-president of the centre-left S&D group in the European Parliament. Dragoș Pîslaru is a Romanian liberal MEP and economist who chairs the EU Parliament's employment committee.


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

Coronavirus threat to EU farm seasonal workers

The restrictive measures taken by many member states to respond to the coronavirus outbreak make it difficult for EU farmers and fishermen to continue their daily work - which is disrupting the agri-food sector across the continent.

Non-EU seasonal workers to get equal rights

Foreign seasonal workers in the EU will have the same employment and social rights as their EU counterparts, under new rules adopted by the European Parliament on Wednesday.

How law encourages exploitation of migrant workers

Even though the European labour market increasingly needs them, migrant workers from third countries remain highly vulnerable. Part of this vulnerability is an artefact of the law.

Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?

Fewer than one-in-ten Ukrainian refugees intend to settle permanently outside Ukraine, according to new research by the associate director of research and the director of gender and economic inclusion at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

Latest News

  1. All of Orbán's MPs back Sweden's Nato entry
  2. India makes first objection to EU carbon levy at WTO summit
  3. Angry farmers block Brussels again, urge fix to 'unfair' prices
  4. Luxembourg denies blind spot on Nato security vetting
  5. Record rate-profits sees EU banks give shareholders €120bn
  6. Why the EU silence on why Orban's €10bn was unblocked?
  7. Far-right MEPs least disciplined in following party line
  8. More farmers, Ukraine aid, Yulia Navalnaya in focus This WEEK

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us