EU funding for the agricultural sector must be used to end the mistreatment especially of migrant labour.
Although every year the European Union devotes billions of euros to support agriculture, many employers continue to fail to provide decent working and employment conditions. This must come to an end. The sector has to assume its social responsibility, including providing better and safer jobs. Otherwise the money from Europe’s taxpayers must be withdrawn.
The coronavirus crisis has resulted in high unemployment figures across Europe. Yet it has left agriculture crying out for workers.
This lack is due to the unacceptable working and employment conditions which characterise the sector and its dependence on migrant workers from low-income countries, whose freedom of movement has been limited by the strict travel restrictions imposed in response to the viral outbreak.
The extent of labour exploitation in European agriculture is huge. The European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions estimates that some four million agricultural workers, many of them migrant workers, operate in conditions of illegal employment, precarious working and exploitation, whether as seasonal workers, day labourers or otherwise insecure.
Low pay and very poor living standards are endemic, with workers often isolated from the rest of society, living in informal dwellings without running water or power. In a significant number of cases, conditions tip over into gangmaster practices and modern slavery.
One particularly vulnerable group comprises female migrant workers, who are frequently the victims of workplace exploitation, discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence.
At the same time, agriculture receives a large part of the EU budget—38 per cent. In addition, at the end of April, the European Commission proposed market measures worth around €80 million to support the food industry during the crisis. The Common Agricultural Policy is supporting EU farmers and is important for Europe’s food security and rural development.
It should be the many employers who do provide their employees with decent working conditions and a safe working environment who are the only beneficiaries of CAP financial support. The EU must send a clear message: funding is not for those who exploit workers.
It is not sustainable for the EU economy to support companies which depend on low wages, poor working conditions and unsafe working environments to survive. EU funding to employers with unacceptable working conditions and working environments should be denied.
Funding should only go to beneficiaries that respect international, European and national rules, standards and collective agreements. Any funds withheld could be used for other objectives, such as worker training, or for strengthening the capacity of the European Labour Authority (ELA) to conduct cross-border, concerted and joint inspections.
The working and housing conditions and the working environment in the agricultural sector have to be improved. The EU should support the capacity-building of social partners in the sector and promote collective bargaining. Labour exploitation should be added to a new EU Strategy for Health and Safety at Work, which should ensure that member states prioritise the sectors with the greatest risk of exploitation.
In short, if Europe’s taxpayers provide support to the business community, it needs to give something back to the citizens of Europe. The high demands that we make of the rest of the business community, to use EU funding correctly, must also be placed on agriculture.
The way forward must be to create a future common agricultural policy which does not contribute to worker exploitation and social dumping, but instead strengthens rural development and gives workers decent conditions and a safe working environment.