Global Human Rights Defence

How the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened Western Europe’s exploitative agribusiness sector

Author: Elia Duran-Smith
Source: Collective of African Workers
Keywords: agriculture, workers rights, labour rights, migration, exploitation


This article focuses on the labour and human rights violations committed against migrant workers in Western European countries-namely Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. These workers often come from Central and Eastern European countries (particularly Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary) and from African countries (such as Morocco and Senegal).



COVID-19 infections and healthcare

During the COVID-19 pandemic, protective regulations across European countries have been either ignored or weakened for agrifood workers. From the moment they begin their journey to the country in which they will work, these workers’ right to be protected from the virus is disregarded, as reports have surfaced of Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian workers being flown into the Netherlands and Italy on flights in which social distancing rules were ignored.[1]


While at work, social distancing measures have often been ignored and personal protective equipment and adequate hand sanitation facilities are not often provided to workers in Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.[2] In Germany, the agrifood sector was considered “systematically relevant infrastructure” at the federal level and, therefore, it was not subject to the same safety restrictions as other sectors.[3] This has led to “extremely poor hygiene conditions” and little observance of contact restrictions in food processing facilities, particularly in slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants across Germany.[4]


Alarmingly, the Netherlands saw a dramatic increase in the percentage of excess deaths for migrants mostly coming from Central and Eastern European countries reached 50% during the first half of 2020, whereas this figure stood at 38% among the native Dutch population.[5] This may be due to a higher rate of infections among these populations, but this could also be attributed to the fact that many migrant workers are not able to seek hospital treatment because of the inaccessibility of health insurance. In Germany and the Netherlands, many seasonal workers do not receive health insurance as a result of the short-term nature of their contracts.[6] Furthermore, those agrifood sector workers in the Netherlands who do receive health insurance, have been afraid to speak up about the lack of adherence to safety measures for fear that their insurance will be revoked by their employers.[7]



A key aspect of the exploitation of migrant workers is employers’ control over their housing. Employers often provide housing to their employees and take the rent out of their salaries, which is illegal. During the pandemic, in countries like Italy, Spain and Germany, the cramped conditions of the housing provided to agrifood workers means that social distancing has been essentially impossible, leading to high rates of infection.[8] Moreover, in Spain, migrant workers, usually coming from Africa, are forced to live in makeshift shacks made from wooden pallets that are sold to them by their employers (for around 300-500) that they have to build themselves. These shacks frequently catch fire as a result of “precarious living conditions and institutional neglect”.[9] Additionally, the campsites in which they live exhibited a lack of essential provisions, including safe drinking water and electricity.[10] While visiting the campsites in Huelva in Southwestern Spain in early 2020, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said people in these settlements had been reduced to living “like animals”.[11]  These workers have had to rely on the support of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions to fulfil their basic needs.[12]


Precarious contracts

There has been trade union action across these countries, including various strikes, in order to bring about much awaited change to the irregular and precarious nature of labour in this sector. There have been widespread demands for regularisation of agrifood worker employment. The abuse of labour rights in this sector has expressed itself in the form of sexual and physical abuse, contracts being terminated with only a day’s notice, workers having to foot the bill for their own employment contracts to gain residency permits, and the emergence of a black market for fake contracts.[13]


Workers in Spain have gone into debt after paying for their work contracts and their travel to Huelva.[14] Once workers arrived from Morocco in early 2020, the vast majority of whom were women, the Moroccan government did not allow them to return after their seasonal contract, leaving these workers without work and without government social support.[15] In Italy, some workers have been charged up to 5,000 for these illegal contracts.[16]


There have also been calls for structural intervention at the national level by trade unions and NGOs. In Italy, the civil society campaign Ero Straniero and the NGO and international collective on asylum rights Tavolo Nazionale Asilo suggested amendments to widen the scope of the national regularisation scheme, however, these were rejected by the Italian parliament.[17] Additionally, employers have tried to deter workers in Huelva from unionising and striking; anyone who speaks out is suspended without work or pay for three days, or loses their job entirely. However, the feminist association of seasonal workers Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha has emerged since 2018 as a de facto union trying to speak out for those who feel they cannot.[18] Moreover, more than 100 organisations urged the Spanish government to recognise over 600,000 undocumented migrants.[19]


However, activists have pointed out that structural change at the national level is not enough to combat migrant labour exploitation in Europe. Calls have been made for more robust legislation to be adopted by the European Union. Journalist Mariangela Paone has explained that “the problem is European. If it is treated as nothing more than a local problem, we may be able to do away with abuses in Huelva, but they will simply move to Greece.”[20]



The use of predominantly exploited migrant labour is prevalent throughout the food production sector in western Europe, with a huge span of different human rights violations being associated with this practice. More than ever, we see these workers relying on civil society organisations like trade unions and NGOs for their subsistence. The devaluation of the lives of these people has been demonstrated through the pandemic by the disregard for their safety and the exploitation of their resources, as well as their labour. The plight of these workers worsens in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which is only likely to increase in the future.




Palumbo, L. and Corrado, A. (eds) (2021). Covid-19, Agri-food Systems, and Migrant Labour. Open Society European Policy Institute.


Castro, N. (2021, October 27) Why Southern Europe’s berry farms rely on migrant labour without rights. Equal Times.

[1] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, pp. 11-12

[2] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, pp. 10, 13, 15

[3] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 6

[4] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 7

[5] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 12

[6] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, pp. 6, 13

[7] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 13

[8] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, pp. 6, 10, 15

[9] Castro, 2021

[10] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020 p. 15

[11] Castro, 2021

[12] Castro, 2021

[13] Castro, 2021; Palumbo and Corrado, 2020 p. 8, 10

[14] Castro, 2021

[15] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 16

[16] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 10

[17] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 11

[18] Castro, 2021

[19] Palumbo and Corrado, 2020, p. 17

[20] Castro, 2021

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