European Lockdowns and the Effect on Migrant Workers in the European Union

Written by: Sofia Calabrese, Associate Editor

Eight months after unprecedented travel restrictions in Europe due to the novel coronavirus began, European countries have begun closing down their borders for the second time as a new wave of the virus surges on the continent. Though the degree of shutdown varies, some countries such as France have decided that individuals are only to leave their homes for necessities such as groceries or medical treatment.

One of the fundamental functions of the European Union is to allow for the free movement of workers across borders. Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that citizens are entitled to seek work in other countries, stay in that country, and enjoy the full benefits of residence in that country. The movement of workers has been an essential aim of allowing individuals to travel throughout Europe for part time work. Many individuals rely on this provision to seek employment as well as labor. Despite this being an essential right, one of the limited instances in which this right can be rescinded is for the protection of public health.

In the first wave of the pandemic, the unilateral closure of borders as well as the fear of illness led to many migrant workers staying home. For example, Romanian workers making up the largest group of migrant workers in Europe saw almost 200,000 individuals returning home. One of the more noticeable effects of the inability of migrant workers to cross unilateral border closures during the pandemic has been the effect on the agricultural sector. In a survey conducted in July, 57% of farmers questioned said that the pandemic had led to a decline in revenue for the season. All across Europe countries are beginning to suffer the effects of severe agricultural laborer shortages. Farmers in Western Europe rely heavily on migrant workers from eastern and central Europe to pick fruits and vegetables. Although there were some solutions such as German and British companies chartering private flights to fly in workers, these options are not available to smaller-scale farms and agricultural operations.

In some of the countries that were able to fly workers in, locals as well as the migrant workers themselves began to voice concern over the safety protocols enacted to complete the work. Complaints such as non-socially distanced housing as well as simple temperature checks rather than coronavirus checks when entering the country led individuals to question the possibility of safely resuming migrant agricultural work. Validating the concern, one of the worst outbreak locations in the moment is Spain with authorities believe this is directly linked to underwhelming safety measures for migrant farm workers that have been able to travel to the area.

The first wave of border closures only saw temporary measures being enacted to sustain the agricultural sector with the limitations presented on migrant workers. The second wave of closures currently being enacted reiterates this problem, placing farmers in countries such as Germany and France who rely on migrant workers in the same perilous position as they were earlier in the year. Although the peak season for migrant farmworkers is waning as the winter months approach, there is still a continual need for labor in the agricultural sector.

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