Migrant seasonal workers in the European agricultural sector

Briefing 26-02-2021

The EU fruit and vegetable sector is heavily dependent on a non-national labour force, either from other EU Member States or third countries. Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Poland, in particular, employ high numbers of migrant seasonal farm workers. While these numbers have been steadily increasing, they compensate only partly for the ongoing decline in national agricultural workforces. Migrant seasonal workers from the EU are entitled to fully equal treatment with nationals of the host country under the fundamental right to the free movement of workers within the EU, whereas third-country nationals are covered by the Seasonal Workers Directive of 2014, which grants them equal treatment as regards terms of employment and some social benefits. EU Member States manage their own seasonal worker schemes depending on the needs of the domestic labour market, their ties with third countries and their broader immigration system. The reality of seasonal agricultural work is a harsh one, with generally poor working and living conditions. Undocumented migrants, but also legal ones, can fall victim to illegal gang-master practices or even modern forms of slavery. Exploitation of women occurs in certain regions. The coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted harvests in the spring of 2020 as seasonal workers faced travel restrictions, also highlighted their essential role in EU agriculture and laid bare their sometimes appalling working and living conditions. Reacting to this situation, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the protection of seasonal workers in June 2020, calling on Member States to ensure proper implementation of the relevant EU legislation and on the European Commission to issue new specific guidelines and propose long-term solutions to fight abusive practices and protect victims. In July 2020, the Commission responded to this call by issuing new guidelines on the protection of seasonal workers in the context of the pandemic, announcing further action, including ongoing work with the European Labour Authority.