Blog post by Anca Crețu and Bjarney Friðriksdóttir, researchers at Pedro Arrupe Human Rights Institute, University of Deusto.

“Migrants’ role seems to only receive limited recognition and acknowledgement in political and strategic decision-making in the agricultural sector and agri-food value chains. Food labelling in the EU is characterised by a plethora of different systems and cater to citizens’ growing awareness about the benefits of safe, organic, healthy local/traditional and environmentally-friendly products. Paradoxically, there is no official labelling system that addresses how agricultural workers are treated, though this represents a relevant part of the quality of production processes.”  

From: “Is Italian agriculture a ‘pull factor’ for irregular migration – and, if so, why?”

New Pact on Migration and Asylum

Mandatory solidarity but à la carte, without mandatory relocation and with return sponsorships. The European Commission presented the new proposal for a Pact on Migration and Asylum two weeks after the fire in the Moria refugee camp. The new text and the legislative proposals that accompany it represent the continuity of a policy in which the control of external borders prevails over the safeguarding of human rights. 

Brussels’ new proposal aims at building a new balance based on stricter control of the external borders, with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) as the operational arm, and faster procedures to determine who has the right to stay on European territory. Under the new plan, all people who arrive without authorization, whether they are rescued at sea, seek international protection or are detained within the territory, will be subject to an accelerated examination – health and security (including fingerprinting and registration in the EURODAC database) within a maximum period of five days to determine their identity and whether they constitute a threat to public health or safety. 

The Commission’s aim is to try to reconcile the demands of countries such as Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Italy – countries that advocate mandatory distribution quotas – while at the same time addressing the opposition of countries such as Hungary, Austria and Poland that refuse to host refugees. Nevertheless, the new pact favours the position of the Member States that are committed exclusively to strengthening the EU’s external borders and refuse to take in asylum seekers. 

Although the Commission insists that the new pact represents a new beginning in European migration policy, it does not deviate from the focus of the European Agenda on Migration from 2015, a plan presented from Brussels as a compact, fast and homogeneous solution to try to solve the so-called refugee crisis. The 2015 plan has revealed the extensive differences within Europe on this matter and its political practice has focused on the control and externalisation of borders, without considerable reservations when it comes to breaching International Human Rights Law and crushing the founding principles of the Union. The Commission has acknowledged on several occasions that the 2015 system is not working. Still, it insists on putting the spotlight on returns, border externalisation and a European Border and Coast Guard Agency whose mechanisms for accountability, particularly with respect to fundamental rights have not proved to be very effective. In this context, the New Pact on Migration can be seen as the chronicle of an announced failure given that the prospects for a change in the migration approach in European policy seem distant.

In the new text, the Commission does acknowledge that “workers from third countries are filling key shortages in a number of occupations across Member States, including in occupations that were key to the COVID-19 response”. It goes on stating that “the European Commission will launch talent agreements with non-EU countries adapted to the EU’s labour market needs”. The rationale behind it is markedly economic and, in the case of the agricultural sector during the pandemic, focused on safeguarding the food supply chain. It is estimated that 46% of non-European migrants work in activities that were declared essential during the quarantine measures in Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled a stark paradox of EU’s production system: ‘low-skilled’ jobs became exceptionally ‘essential’ jobs.  The structural reasons for the irregularity and exploitation of these essential migrants who at the same time are in the most precarious and invisible position within the production chain, were not addressed. In the European Agenda on Migration adopted in 2015 the Commission pledged to make available at least EUR 30 million to support partners with capacity building on effective management of labour migration, focusing on empowering migrant workers and tackling labour exploitation. No information is given about activities undertaken or results of this pledge in the Commission’s 2019 Progress report on the Implementation of the European Agenda on Migration.

The contemporary forms of economic organisation seem to require the constant production of violated migrant bodies

The observation above is directly applicable to the impact of the mode of production in the agricultural sector in Europe and its consequences as regards rights and welfare of migrant workers. As assessed by the European Coordination Via Campesina, the position of the workers in the dominant mode of production in agriculture in Europe has changed during the last decades. Both in relation to the international framework of  GATT (General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade) and later the World Trade Organisation, there has been a radical transformation of agricultural and production areas under the combined effect of a dynamic of land concentration in the hands of ever fewer peasants, the establishment of monocultures on ever larger areas and territories, the increasing control of supermarkets that set prices and pass on their logistical constraints to producers and finally the exploitation of both natural resources and labour. 

Agricultural regions require a very large supply of agricultural labour, particularly seasonal labour and exploitation of labour is often used by firms as the main adjustment value of production costs in a highly competitive economic environment governed by the rules of organised large-scale distribution. This system of production is often referred to as the ‘California model’, an agricultural production system whose profitability is based in particular on the exploitation of migrant seasonal workers. Systematic discrimination against migrant workers, in law and/or practice, enables exploitation of these workers and denying them equal treatment with nationals constitutes social dumping and contravenes international human rights and international labour law standards.  Migrant workers, particularly those considered ‘temporary’ and/or classified as low-skilled workers are frequently excluded from equal treatment with nationals in wages and working conditions by law or in practice. The principle of equal treatment in wages and working conditions as it is enshrined in international human rights and labour law provides that migrant workers are entitled to enjoy the right to equal treatment with nationals in the state where they work. 

In an article published in the Spanish newspaper El País, about the conditions of seasonal workers in Spain during the quarantine measures, Antonio Abad, founder of the Asisti association and collaborator of NGOs in the area of Huelva (Spain) observed that “the schemes of intensive agriculture are based on a system of exploitation; if the rights were respected, it would not be profitable”. The report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights from his visit to Spain in 2020 provides that in Huelva, workers are living in a migrant settlement in conditions that rival the worst the Special Rapporteur has seen anywhere in the world. They are kilometres away from water and live without adequate sanitation or legal access to electricity. They are earning as little as 30 euros per day and have almost no access to any form of government support. According to civil society actors that provided the Special Rapporteur with information, 2,300-2,500 people live in similar conditions during the strawberry season. In 2018-2019 the strawberry crop in Huelva was worth 533 million euros. The Special Rapporteur plans to play a part in monitoring the largest producer of strawberries in the area, Driscoll’s and its associated companies, which have a set of labour standards that they state ‘apply to all workers in the supply chain, with no distinction.’

In the 2015 European Agenda on Migration, the EU did address the need to “try to halt the human misery created by those who exploit migrants,” but interestingly that did not include a focus on what is taking place within the borders of EU member states, for example in the agricultural sector, but on using the EU’s “global role and wide range of tools to address the root causes of migration.” The EU claims that unsuccessful “asylum claimants who try to avoid returns, visa overstayers, and migrants living in permanent state of irregularity constitute a serious problem,” that corrode “confidence in the system.” The continued focus of the EU on governance of its external borders and inaction regarding long-standing systematic discrimination against and exploitation of ‘essential’ workers in ‘essential’ food production sectors in EU countries is not only inadequate but unacceptable having regard to the duty of the EU and its member states to protect the human rights of ‘everyone’ within its borders.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.