Guest post by Ruben I. Timmerman (PhD Candidate, Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Who are Europe’s essential workers? Over the past several months, there has been an outpouring of public admiration and gratitude towards health care workers for their tireless efforts to combat the coronavirus. Earlier this year, citizens of various European countries could be seen in their doorways and on their balconies banging pots and pans and applauding their country’s doctors and nurses. The public has also recognized others for their continued work during the crisis, including grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, police and other emergency responders. However, one important reality that has gone largely unrecognized within mainstream public discourse is the essential role that migrant workers have played in sustaining the European economy throughout the crisis. To illustrate this point, it is helpful to briefly look back at the early days of the COVID-19 crisis.

migrant workers

The lockdown measures that were first implemented in March to contain the spread of the pandemic resulted in a virtual shut-down of all (non-essential) economic activities across Europe. This had an immediate economic impact on key sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, food processing, transportation, and logistics. In particular, as migrant workers began returning to their countries of origin or were prevented from travelling abroad, these sectors faced severe and unprecedented labour shortages. Despite the fact that the pandemic had grounded nearly all passenger flights and closed borders between European countries, in March the European Commission issued new guidelines to ensure the free movement of migrant workers from Eastern and Central Europe in order to protect European supply chains. As crops began to rot in fields across Europe, several countries were quickly forced to re-assess their national containment measures and make special concessions for migrant workers. In Germany, tens of thousands of seasonal migrant workers were airlifted in, while Italy began providing residence permits to undocumented migrants to respond to severe labor shortages. In the Netherlands, the pandemic has had a similar impact. Over the years there has been a growing demand for cheap migrant labour across numerous sectors of the Dutch economy. Over the past several months, COVID-19 has had a particularly severe impact on the agri-food industry. The position of the Netherlands as the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter has long been a source of national pride, and a symbol of Dutch innovation and hard work. However, often concealed is that non-Dutch migrant workers carry out the overwhelming brunt of the most challenging and laborious work contributing to such achievement.

Despite Europe’s dependency on migrant labour, these same migrant workers have long been subject to systemic political and economic neglect. This has been no more evident than over the past several months in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. In many respects, migrant workers are uniquely vulnerable to both the health risks presented by the coronavirus, as well as the devastating effects of economic crisis. As Europe introduced new regulations that would allow them to travel and work, for many of these workers, it will also mean an increased risk of contracting the virus. While European countries took drastic measures to protect its own citizens, there was comparatively little effort to ensure the protection of migrant workers who continued to work tirelessly in essential sectors of the economy.

In the months following the outbreak, widespread reports of unsafe and unsanitary working conditions and a lack of basic public health measures emerged in the media, including a lack of social distancing and the absence of personal protective equipment. Workers who show symptoms or feel sick are often required to work or face unemployment. Outside of the workplace, many migrant workers also depend on shared and inadequate or crowded housing and transportation that is arranged through employment agencies, making it even more difficult to implement public health measures effectively.

On the other hand, within sectors deemed as ‘non-essential’, migrant workers may also be the first to lose their jobs. As accommodation is often arranged through recruitment agencies and linked to their employment contract, these workers may also lose their housing. Homeless shelters in the Netherlands have recently reported increasing numbers of homeless and unemployed migrant workers as a result of the crisis, with few options to receive municipal support and emergency shelter. Undocumented workers are also particularly vulnerable. Many of these workers are active in the informal economy where they do not benefit from sick leave, unemployment benefits, or other forms of government relief. These migrants are also less likely to report to the police if they are victims of abuse or exploitation at the hands of employers out of fear of arrest and deportation.

While there has been growing media attention towards the recent public health challenges for migrant workers, more longstanding workers’ rights concerns have also been brought into the spotlight: wage discrimination; excessively long working hours; permanent temporary contracts; unjustified fees and obligatory wage deductions by employers or employment agencies (for food, healthcare, transport, accommodation); substandard housing conditions; intimidation; and refused or unpaid wages. Many of these concerns may be attributed to the flexibilization of the labour market and the expansion of non-standard forms of employment, including temporary and seasonal work, labour intermediation through recruitment agencies, and outsourcing and subcontracting arrangements. This growth of non-standard employment produces significant insecurity and instability for workers, placing them in a situation of subordination that allows employers to demand unconditional flexibility from workers, systematically prevents them from advancing to better contracts, and forces them into temporary employment situations where they are perpetually vulnerable to job loss. So, while COVID-19 has indeed introduced a host of new challenges and concerns, the underlying problems of unsafe work, economic insecurity, and dependency remain very much endemic to the structural economic vulnerabilities of migrant workers.

migrant workers

As the past year has shown, moments of crisis often have a way of exposing social realities that we ignore or take for granted. Europe has been confronted with its dependency on the essential work provided by the migrants that help clean our homes, transport our goods, build our cities, pick our produce, and stock our shelves. However, the crisis has not only exposed our dependency on migrant workers, but also how these workers—and the conditions under which they labor—are all too often ignored. In many ways, Europe’s migrants have become it’s neglected essential workers.

While the crisis has indeed served to expose some difficult realities about the nature of migrant labour, we must now also work to ensure that it catalyzes positive social change. Looking beyond the crisis, then, the essential first step is recognizing that many of the problems exposed are not unique to the current crisis. They are systemic to a broader political economic structure that produces, and in many ways depends upon, the ongoing precarity and vulnerability of migrant workers.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Timmerman, R. I. (2020). COVID-19 Exposes the Realities of Europe’s Neglected Essential Workers. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/12/covid-19-exposes [date]