In one of the many paradoxes of the new world we live in, Western European countries that have seen millions of jobs wiped out in a matter of weeks are now facing an acute shortage of agricultural laborers.
Farmers in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the UK and other parts of Western Europe have come to rely on huge numbers of cheap labor from Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, those workers are either no longer able to make it to the farms or are choosing to stay with their families in their home countries.
This is leading to an “alarming” shortage of farmhands, warns the EU in an as yet unpublished report. The report blames the shortage on two main factors:
- The restrictions on the movement of workers between EU countries to combat the spread of Covid-19;
- And the miserable, crowded living conditions in which many imported farm workers live, which put them at much greater risk of contracting the virus.
In Spain a record 900,000 workers dropped off Spain’s social security register of employees in the last two and a half weeks of March, yet farm associations are complaining that they’re short of over 100,000 workers to help pick the fruit, vegetables and tobacco that are now ready for harvest.
“Vineyards are paralyzed because there’s no one to install the conduction system; there are no day laborers to prune the olive trees or remove the weeds in the onion farms; there are not even enough hands to tie the garlic bundles”, says agricultural engineer Arturo Serrano. “All of these crops have work cycles that are governed by nature and cannot be postponed.”
In France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producer where food and rural life form an integral part of popular culture, the government’s rallying cry for local citizens to fill the labor gaps on the country’s farms appears to have been more successful. Some 240,000 freshly furloughed workers have already signed up for the government’s “Des bras pour ton assiette” (Arms for your plate) campaign, partly as a means to get out into the country and escape the confines of their home. Five thousand volunteers have already been put to work.
In the Southern Spanish region of Huelva, where many of the strawberries and other summer fruits are grown and picked, to be consumed in Western Europe, the living conditions on some farms are so deplorable they have been likened to modern-day slavery. In some cases the laborers, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, are not even provided with accommodation. Shunned by landlords in neighboring villages, they have little choice but to build makeshift shelters, which rapidly mushroom into shanty towns that have no access to running water or electricity.
Now, many of those workers have failed to turn up for the harvest season, leaving farmers little choice but to source their labor locally. The problem is that most locals don’t want to work on farms under those conditions anymore. Even in areas blighted with eye-watering levels of unemployment such as Huelva (24% before the virus crisis), many locals would prefer to stay on the dole or try to find work in industries that pay better — farmhands can be paid as little as €5 an hour, less than Spain’s legal minimum wage — and offer greater job security. Now, thanks to Covid-19, those slightly better paid, slightly more secure jobs no longer exist.
At the beginning of April, Spanish farm groups lobbied the government to make it legally possible for furloughed workers to work on farms near where they live and continue receiving their unemployment benefits. The government quickly obliged, meaning the farmers now have a new army of low-paid, taxpayer-subsidized workers at their disposal. But according to El Confidencial, the response has so far been disappointing. Not enough people have signed up and of those who have, many only last a day or two in the fields before throwing in the towel.
Spain is Europe’s fourth largest exporter of agricultural produce, behind the Netherlands, France and Germany. In 2018, those exports exceeded €50 billion. With the country’s all-important tourism industry on hold for the foreseeable future, these exports take on an even bigger role.
In Germany the government has tried to circumvent this problem by using Lufthansa’s vast excess capacity to fly in 80,000 seasonal farm workers from Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Hungary over the next two months. Upon their arrival, the workers are subject to medical checks. Then they must live and work separately from other farmhands for two weeks and wear protective gear. The government also hopes to source an additional 20,000 workers from among Germany’s unemployed, students and resident asylum seekers.
In the UK, farmers say they need to find some 70,000 seasonal workers to make sure the crops are picked this year. Many of them will have to be sourced locally. As in Spain, furloughed workers have been given the green light to take second jobs in the sector while their current jobs remain in limbo. There has also been a major hiring push to “Feed the Nation” that has already landed more than 27,000 applicants. But only about 4,300 of them have so far taken up the offer of an interview.
How many of those applicants will actually be able to hack the physical and mental demands of fruit or vegetable picking is a whole other question. I speak from direct experience: in my early teens I spent four or five weeks of three consecutive summers picking courgettes and spring onions, all in the name of earning a little extra pocket money. Even at that age, it was backbreaking, mind-numbing, spirit-sapping work though it did toughen me up and teach me the value of money. That said, I would never want to have to do it again.
If farmers in the UK, Spain, Germany and other parts of Europe want to attract enough hard working locals to pick their crops in the coming weeks, they may have to take the heretofore unthinkable step of actually raising wages. Hiring unemployed locals by paying, say, twice as much as the imported African or East European labor they usually hire and providing decent working conditions would be a good way not only to address the labor shortage but also to put to use the untapped resources of local communities.
While farmers, their lobbies and the EU may caution about the risks of rising food prices resulting from the current labor shortage, the impact of increasing the unit costs of farm labor should be relatively minimal.
The lion’s share of the retail price of fruit or vegetables is added after the farm-labor input, by the players in the entire supply chain, and particularly by the big wholesalers and retailers, which for years have been systematically squeezing farmers’ margins. But this time, these wholesalers and retailers would be caught between slightly higher costs and intense consumer resistance to higher retail prices — and that wouldn’t be the worst trade-off to keep farms operating. By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET.