National and EU-level action are needed to make seasonal labour migration in the single market a ‘win-win’ for the member states involved.
The European Commission estimates that there are several hundred thousand to a million seasonal workers in the European Union in each year. In Germany, businesses fill labour shortages in the agriculture and food processing sectors with seasonal migrant workers, mostly from eastern Europe.
In June 2020, when more than 1,500 workers at a German meat-processing plant tested positive for Covid-19, two districts were locked down to contain one of Europe’s largest outbreaks. Poland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Ireland and Spain were faced with similar incidents on a smaller scale.
According to European Union legislation on freedom of movement for workers, European citizens are entitled to take up employment under the same conditions as citizens of the host member state. Their working and living conditions are however precarious and make them vulnerable to virus spreads—with wages below the local level and even the national minimum wage, unpaid extra hours and disregard of break requirements, substandard accommodation and facilities, lack of privacy due to overcrowded housing and workplace transport, and job insecurity.
Though built on economic asymmetry between member states from the outset, enabling the migration of seasonal workers within Europe was envisaged as a ‘win-win’ for the member states involved. Yet if vulnerable European citizens are exploited, the single market operates in favour of countries, such as Germany, which can fill their labour shortages in certain sectors.
Breaches of the law
For this relationship to be a just labour exchange, seasonal migrant workers need to be able to earn a fair living wage, under decent working and living conditions. Legislation is in place but relying on its application will not be enough: Germany had already tightened regulations without success, yet in North Rhine-Westphalia alone last year’s field inspections of 17,000 jobs in 30 large enterprises detected 8,800 breaches of the law.
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Now that the pandemic has made it unavoidable that the situation of European migrant workers be addressed, the German government has taken action at the national level, with a new law passed in December, and inspired efforts on the EU level, through the commission and the Germany presidency of the Council of the EU. Both are necessary to accomplish comprehensive changes that ensure workers’ rights in the single market.
Germany’s new Labour Protection Control Law (Arbeitsschutzkontrollgesetz) is designed to ensure businesses do adhere to existing labour law. For instance, companies will be obliged to introduce digital recording of working time and inform public authorities about all employees’ workplace and residence locations, while implementing minimum standards for accommodation. The law also aims to close loopholes, by restricting subcontracting in the meat industry.
These national efforts offer to other member states transferable practices and are therefore reflected in the national guidelines the commission presented in July. The commission calls on member states to take all necessary measures to ensure decent working and living conditions for seasonal workers and to strengthen field inspections.
Need for co-operation
But the German government has also recognised the need for co-operation among member states and inspired further action through its council presidency. Ministers for employment and social policy agreed on several action points in October, to intensify their co-operation. And the commission is planning further action on the EU level. Why?
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As demonstrated by the guidelines, member-state exchanges are useful to build know-how and share good practices, with the help of organisations such as the European Platform tackling undeclared work. And social-policy ministers are able to co-ordinate their actions, via the European Labour Authority, which pools resources and conducts joint inspections and risk assessments. Improving seasonal workers’ access to information about their rights in their native language is another issue best addressed in co-ordinated fashion.
Placing the exploitation of migrant workers on the EU agenda can also generate evidence enabling member states to challenge one another. The commission plans to conduct studies through multiple EU organisations to assess seasonal work, evaluate occupational risks and compare legal frameworks. This way, it can identify more specific guidance for domestic and EU policy.
While member states do need to address the inadequacies of their legal frameworks and control measures, to ensure labour legislation is applied comprehensively in practice, their collaboration through EU bodies is critical to harmonising and elevating their activities, based on mutual interest. By exchanging best practices and building a more adequate evidence base on violations of migrant workers’ rights, states will be able to translate insights into action and hold each other to account.
The comparative disadvantage member states fear, if they adhere to labour laws while others do not, increases the pressure for unified action. Germany’s government has recognised the need for co-operation—and could not only inspire action at EU level but also become a watchdog to ensure the single market fulfils its promise of a win-win for all European citizens and member states.