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The burden of COVID-19 in a brittle food system for agricultural migrant workers

Farmworkers pick strawberries at Lewis Taylor Farms

As stated by the FAO,Internal and international migrants contribute to agriculture and rural development in many ways, not only by sending remittances or transferring knowledge to their home countries, but also by working in agri-food systems in destination areas.” The UN and IOM assert that the pandemic situation has emphasised the importance of migrants, especially seasonal agricultural labours. Indeed, migrant workers hold a crucial role in the rural livelihoods, agri-food systems and the upholding of food supply in developed countries. Nevertheless, migrant workers had little, if any, support during the pandemic.

The substantial role of migrants in the agri-food workforce

Migrant workers are a cornerstone in the agri-food workforce and ineluctably in the food supply. Germany receives approximately 300,000 migrant labours per year, particularly from Poland and Romania, for agricultural, horticultural, and forestry work. In the United Kingdom, peak periods rely on additional migrant workers, about 75,000, coming principally from Romania and Bulgaria. In Sweden, around 3,000 to 5,000 migrant workers, mainly from Thailand, are expected to ensure the berry harvest yearly. Nonetheless, these numbers undersize the genuine number of berry pickers and other seasonal workers. They are employed under a special work permit. The special work permit only accounts for workers hired by Swedish companies, whereas most berry pickers work for placement agencies in Thailand. Workers within the EU are also excluded from the number. This example, therefore, brings evidence of the lack of representative data.

Between 2011 and 2017, the EU agriculture counted an outflow of over 1.3 million national farmworkers that was balanced by inflows of both intra-EU and extra-EU migrant labours. The two groups of workers raised by 58,500 (+36%) and 83,700 (+31%), respectively, in the same period. Migrant workers are, therefore, a core piece in the quest for food production and supply in the EU.

Shortage of migrants due to the pandemic

To contain the spread of COVID-19, many countries applied lockdowns, as well as border and mobility restrictions, which entailed labour shortages, particularly among Eastern European workers (chiefly from Romania), emphasising the dependency on a cheap and flexible migrant workforce. This has had a tremendous impact on the primary production sector as migrants are generally employed to harvest fruits and vegetables. France, Germany, and Huelva region in Spain experienced an important lack of seasonal workers of 200,000, 300,000, and 8,000, respectively. Consequently, a high quantity of agricultural products was ineluctably lost in the fields. In addition to jeopardising food availability, food decaying in the field is also harmful to the environment and generates significant financial losses for farmers.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

To overcome the movement restrictions, farmers’ organisations requested the establishment of “green corridors” to ease the mobility of seasonal labours in the EU. This measure was adopted by the European Commission.

The pandemic heightened the harsh working and living conditions of the migrants

Many agricultural migrants are employed under informal or irregular arrangements, coping with precarious working and housing conditions, with no right to access social and healthcare arrangements. Sometimes, migrant workers live in overcrowded settlements, which increased the risk of contracting COVID-19. Migrants are often carpooling  or using packed buses to commute, which increased the risk of infection and spread of COVID-19. Migrants were also devoid of safety equipment measures and access to the information on protective measures regarding COVID-19. This is mainly caused by language barriers, and/or restricted access to the internet. Undocumented workers encountered an additional burden of vulnerability since they are generally not covered by any social or health protection.

According to the working or migratory status, the crisis differently impacted migrant communities. Response measures were not framed accordingly, thus, many workers remained unprotected, and vulnerable to exploitation, food insecurity, and poverty. Gender and age were also a challenge. Commonly, women migrant workers are already predisposed to be more affected because of pre-existing gender segmentation within the rural labour markets and generalised decent work deficits, so on top of that COVID-19 added a layer of vulnerability to gender-based abuse.

Migrant workers also experienced difficulties returning to their countries due to travel restrictions. For instance, when the harvesting period finished in the Huelva region, the return of 8,000 migrant workers, mainly women, from Morocco to their home country was prohibited by the Moroccan government. Before the , workers were stranded in the Spanish countryside with no subsistence aid and were only supported by trade unions.

Since the first lockdown in 2020, due to the shortage of workers and for financial reasons, the work rhythm in the fields has been intensified, abusive conditions scaled up, with larger harvesting sizes for workers, and thus, higher overtime, such as in Huelva.


Image par Swadhin Das de Pixabay

In a nutshell, the pandemic shed light on the dependency of certain countries on migrant workforces, such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In a situation of worker shortage, the current agri-food system is likely to encounter harvesting and supplying difficulties which can generate food loss and issues regarding food availability for consumers. COVID-19 worsened the living and working conditions of migrant workers.

The pandemic emphasised the fragility of the current food system and the crucial role of migrant workers in the agri-food sector as well as in rural development. As key actors in food production and supply, migrant workers’ rights and voices should be strengthened to build resilient food systems, and decent working and living conditions should be ensured. Otherwise, what if a stronger or longer pandemic happens again and migrant workers do not contribute to food production and supply?


David Mingasson, Master student at Aalborg University in Copenhagen.