They toil away for hours on end, under blazing sunshine or drenching rain, to cultivate and harvest the fruits and vegetables we so easily take for granted.
As the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe, those helping to bring food to our plates suddenly became visible, even hailed as “essential workers”. But for the past six decades, the European Union’s farming policy has overlooked their labour rights and living conditions.
The EU’s common agricultural policy – which accounts for over a third of the bloc’s budget – aims to support farm owners and pumps nearly €60 billion into the sector each year. The working conditions of those employed by these farms, however, are not even mentioned in the subsidies scheme.
“At the moment we have this crazy situation where we actually have better protection for animals than for some of these workers on our farms,” said German Green MEP Daniel Freund.
In a joint investigation with Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel and Mediapart, Euronews interviewed dozens of farmworkers across the continent, most of them cross-border migrants.
They complained of unpaid hours, working under tremendous pressure, with very little water or protection, some fainting and vomiting from the exhaustion. They showed us dire housing conditions and spoke of cases of verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.
“We hear that migrants come because it’s hard to recruit, because there’s a labour shortage,” says Catherine Laurent, of the French National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA).
“It’s worth asking ourselves: is it hard to recruit because there’s a labour shortage, or because the conditions these workers have to face are such that it’s practically impossible for locals to accept them?”
Spain: Shantytowns and punishments
Spain is Europe’s leading producer of fruit and vegetables. In the southern province of Huelva, strawberries are known as “red gold,” a juicy business worth around €500 million in revenue each year.
But the industry hides a rotten side. Many farmworkers in the region are undocumented migrants living in “chabolas” – shacks made up of discarded pallets, pieces of cardboard and plastic leftover from greenhouses. These have no access to electricity, sanitation or clean water.
“A country as developed as Spain, a European country… I don’t understand how they can allow for this situation to go on,” says Seydou Diop, who used to pick strawberries and live in one of these shantytowns. He now runs a workers’ collective supporting the undocumented migrants who he says make up a large part of the contingent of farmworkers in the region.
Euronews and its partners interviewed over 20 current and former fruit pickers in Huelva. Many said they weren’t given any masks or gloves during the COVID-19 pandemic. All complained of unpaid hours, gruelling working conditions and tremendous pressure to gather large volumes of fruit.
José Antonio Brazo, a SAT union representative in Huelva, said those who aren’t productive enough get punished: “It’s medieval. If you don’t collect the amount requested, there are punishments of one, two or three days where you stay home without pay. So, on those days, you can’t bring money home.”
Ana Pinto, a representative for “Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha,” a group defending the rights of seasonal workers in Huelva, said the pressure on fruit pickers had become even greater since the coronavirus pandemic. Especially as work inspections were almost non-existent under lockdown.
“The local authorities, the businessmen who employ these people, our national progressive government – no one did anything. No one thought of these people who used their own hands to salvage the economy, and feed people from here and from other countries,” Pinto said.
Most of the workers we spoke to for this investigation asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. Several had worked for Bionest – also known as Berrynest – which collected €4.4 million in CAP subsidies last year alone, according to data provided by the Spanish government.
Bionest did not reply to our repeated requests for comment. Its website carries a special message thanking “all the farmworkers, packhouse workers, all the persons involved in our activity who occupy their jobs every day in these difficult times”.
Ten Moroccan women filed a lawsuit last year against a different farm in the area, Doñana 1998, claiming they had been trafficked, sexually assaulted and exploited while picking strawberries in the area. Their lawyers say they have come to symbolise what’s wrong with the industry.
The women gave Euronews a long and detailed account of their alleged sexual and psychological abuse. They talked about not getting paid and going hungry, to the point of searching for food in garbage bins. They spoke of forced prostitution and used the word “slaves” multiple times to describe their time on the farm, and said that coming to Spain had destroyed their lives.
Doñana 1998 said in an emailed statement that all the accusations are false, and provided court rulings dismissing the claims. The women’s lawyers are currently challenging these rulings in both local and national courts.
For several of the “10 girls from Huelva,” as they became known back in Morocco, the shame brought on by the legal case has meant divorce, losing custody of their children and having their reputation tainted for life.
“We just can’t eat strawberries anymore, because of all the problems we had,” one of the women told Euronews.
France: ‘Welcome to hell’
By far the EU’s biggest producer of oilseeds and cereals, France receives more agricultural subsidies than any other member state – over €7 billion euros each year, according to EU data.
Juan, a young Colombian, flew into the country with a working holiday visa. He heard of the Larrère farms on a Facebook page advertising a job as a seasonal farmworker in southwestern France. But he wasn’t hired for the job by Larrère – instead, by a subcontractor that regularly provides seasonal workers to Larrère and other farms in the region.
Juan was repatriated to Colombia with help from consular authorities at the end of May after his two-month stint as a farmworker in locked-down France proved a bitter disappointment. Starting with the accommodation: a guest house cramming in more than 40 seasonal workers.
“‘Welcome to hell’, I remember being told. And I thought it was a joke. But when they opened the door and I saw the house… it was a disaster,” Juan, who requested we don’t publish his full name, said in a phone interview.
Euronews and its partners obtained copies of blueprints of the house, owned by the Larrère family, as well as logs of tenants and the rent they paid – around €200 a month, deducted straight from their payslip. In late June, the tenants gave our reporters a quick tour.
Up to five adults were packed together in one bedroom. Others slept in bunk beds, in violation of French laws relating to the housing of seasonal workers. No bedsheets or pillows were provided. There was no toilet paper in the restrooms.
The Larrère farms are major producers of organic carrots in France, with annual sales of around €50 million. They receive more than €300,000 in European CAP subsidies each year, according to government data.
We spoke to more than a dozen people who worked on these farms. They described long working days, extra hours left unpaid, and excessive housing costs.
The family-owned company’s chief executive, Patrick Larrère, emailed a lengthy statement in response to our investigation. He said that since our visit, the company had carried out an internal survey and acknowledged some shortcomings in its organisation, but that most of the respondents planned to return to work on its farms in the future.
Larrère added that it would draw up a code of ethics to improve management and working conditions. It promised to provide bedsheets and called on local and national authorities to help with the housing of its workers during the summer tourist season.
The human cost of cheap meat
In slaughterhouses around the world, clusters of COVID-19 exposed the cramped working and living conditions of those butchering the meat that hits our supermarket shelves.
The German meatpacking firm Tönnies came under fire when it struggled to help authorities track and trace hundreds of infected workers. Much of the company’s workforce is hired in Eastern Europe, via subcontractors accused by unions of underpaying extra working hours and charging migrant workers hundreds of euros of rental fees for a bed in a shared room.
The issue took a diplomatic turn when Romania’s Labour Minister Violeta Alexandru drove from Bucharest to Germany in May to complain about the treatment of her compatriots in the country’s meat plants and its asparagus farms.
“Things should be clear from the very beginning: What is my salary? What are the extra payments if I work more, and to what extent am I allowed to work more,” Alexandru told Euronews.
She insisted that inspecting working conditions falls to member states, but suggested the EU could better use its firepower to drive change in subsidised sectors like farming.
“I think it is our role in the EU to make sure that the money from the taxpayers at a European level is treated respectfully, including by making verifications and checking that all employees under these contracts covered by European funds have the minimum social protection for the work that they are providing,” she said.
On June 19, the European Parliament acknowledged the challenges faced by seasonal and cross-border workers when it passed a resolution calling for urgent action to safeguard their health and safety. It stated that the pandemic had “exposed and exacerbated social dumping and the existing precariousness” for many of them.
MEPs called on the Commission to tackle abusive subcontracting practices and to ensure that the European Labour Authority (ELA) becomes fully operational as a matter of priority. They also urged member states to strengthen labour inspections and ensure quality housing that’s decoupled from workers’ wages.
The European Commission has now unveiled guidelines for member states to better protect the health and social rights of seasonal workers.
“You cannot have a business model which is based on some form of exploitation of foreign workers,” Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, told Euronews.
“These workers are essential workers because in this crisis, if we hadn’t had them, we would have a food crisis.”
Tomas Statius contributed reporting from France, Carlos Marlasca, Zach Campbell and Steffen Lüdke from Spain, Henrik Merker from Germany, Mari Jeanne Ion from Romania and Jack Parrock and Efi Koutsokosta from Brussels.
“Invisible Workers” is a months-long joint newsroom investigation led by Lighthouse Reports, featuring Der Spiegel, Mediapart, Euronews, the Guardian, Follow the Money and the Investigative Reporting Project Italy.