E.g., 04/22/2024
E.g., 04/22/2024
Under Lockdown Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Europe Feels the Pinch from Slowed Intra-EU Labor Mobility

Under Lockdown Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Europe Feels the Pinch from Slowed Intra-EU Labor Mobility

Grape pickers in France

Grape pickers in France. (Photo: Ian Robertson)

Freedom of movement has been the cornerstone of the European Union for nearly three decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put a chill on this right, both as a result of national government actions to contain the spread of the virus and workers’ own hesitance to travel in an era of social distancing and uncertain times.

In March, a number of European governments (including Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, and Spain) unilaterally closed their borders with neighboring EU countries, cancelled international flights, or imposed border checks in an emergency attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. These measures were joined by the temporary closure of the European Union’s external borders to most nonresidents, as well as domestic lockdowns in many Member States imposing restrictions on nonessential movements.

These restrictions have not only affected freedom of movement, but intra-EU labor mobility as well. Frontier workers who live in one EU country but work in another, can no longer commute as easily. For instance, Poles from Zgorzelec who pre-pandemic commuted for work to Görlitz and other nearby German towns recently protested the mobility restrictions as a threat to their jobs. There are also indications that the lockdown has affected long-term mobile workers, who habitually reside and work in another EU Member State. As of late March, more than 200,000 Romanian workers—currently the largest group of EU-27 free movers—had returned to Romania from EU countries most hit by the pandemic, for reasons that may include precarious employment conditions, loss of income, as well as limited health insurance and social security coverage.

Border closures and restrictions on the mobility of EU workers are likely to be temporary, and already there are signs of employers engaging in workarounds, such as British and German companies arranging special flights to bring in Romanian seasonal farm workers. But the pandemic has exposed some of the pre-existing cost and benefit asymmetries across a bloc that has widely different economic realities. These will outlive the pandemic and are likely to be heightened as a result of it.

Intra-EU labor mobility is centered on matching labor supply to demand, as a mechanism to sort out inefficiencies in national labor markets. Relative to sourcing non-EU migrants, using EU free movers to address labor shortages significantly reduces costs for public administrations and employers in the countries of destination. In theory, this is a triple win that benefits the individual workers who access better employment opportunities, receiving economies that fill needed jobs and get a productivity boost, and sending countries that benefit from increased financial and social remittances. But does it always work out so neatly? Who is more likely to reap the benefits and bear the costs? The article explores these questions and reflects on implications for the future of intra-EU labor mobility in the post-pandemic period.

Precarious Work Before, During, and After the Pandemic

The temporary border closures and travel bans within the European Union have demonstrated immediate near-term effects. One of them is the inability to get the seasonal foreign workers necessary in agriculture, with fears in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere in recent weeks that crops will go unharvested. France, for example, predicted a shortage of 200,000 agriculture workers over the next few months. Even as government and industry officials are appealing for out-of-work nationals, recently arrived asylum seekers, and other residents to fill the gap, the lack of access to trained workers cannot be quickly and easily remedied. “In general, German farmers are looking for skilled workers, who in the best case have years of work experience,” said a spokesperson for the German farmers association DBV. “A lot of the seasonal workers are exactly that.”

Longer-term effects from limits on mobility cannot be easily measured yet, but a few governments have already begun to understand the pinch and are taking measures to lift some of the curbs for the most immediately and visibly affected sectors: agriculture and health care. Labor shortages have long existed in these two sectors, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Workers in these sectors have become essential for supporting the fight against the virus and ensuring continuity of the food supply.

Seasonal Workers in the Agricultural Sector

Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom (which exited the European Union on January 31 but remains bound by EU rules and rights including free movement during a transition period lasting through December 31) each need between 300,000 to 400,000 seasonal workers. Other Member States have also signaled challenges in gaining access to sufficient workers to harvest crops. Through bilateral discussions, Germany and the United Kingdom have since sourced seasonal farm workers from Eastern Europe (in particular Romania), despite mobility restrictions and Brexit narratives about curbing freedom of movement. Private recruitment agencies in Poland have also recently published a flurry of seasonal work ads for jobs in Germany and the Netherlands.

But in their haste to gain essential workers, countries may be sidelining adequate protection measures—both for the workers and for destination communities. Early in April, Germany lifted its travel ban to permit the entry of 40,000 seasonal workers each in April and May under strict conditions. The urgent need for farmhands seems to have reined in health considerations, however, as news reports indicate that promised COVID-19 testing was replaced by simple predeparture temperature checks. There also have been reports that some workers were kept in enclosed spaces that do not respect social distancing rules. At arrival, it is up to the recruiters to ensure that workers are protected and allowed to observe social distancing guidelines.

Ensuring access to health care is always important, but is absolutely vital amid a pandemic. While at this writing there was only one publicly known instance of a seasonal worker having COVID-19, the case has received a lot of attention and raised questions about how stringently health considerations feature in the European race for seasonal workers. The 57-year-old Romanian worker at a German farm reportedly asked to be taken to the hospital over respiratory problems, but was ignored; after his death, he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Several other Romanians recruited for farm work in Germany complained to onsite supervisors and Romanian media outlets about living conditions that do not comply with social distancing requirements and the lack of onsite medical assistance. They also complained about being forced to work 14-16 hours a day, being paid by the kilogram picked instead of per hour worked, and that their labor contracts were not translated into Romanian nor handed over for them to sign.

For workers who do not speak the destination-country language and have little information about their rights and the legal recourse available, refusal to comply with requests is often not considered an option. Still, news organizations learned of reports of seasonal workers being laid off by onsite recruitment agents soon after arriving on farms in Germany in April. The workers alleged they were dismissed because they refused to agree to exploitative working conditions and precarious living conditions. Governments at both ends have produced guides detailing health and safety requirements for protecting workers during the pandemic, and the Romanian Ministry of Labor has published information about working conditions abroad and employment contracts, as well as available helplines. Nongovernmental groups that for years have monitored the situation for EU mobile workers in Germany, including Faire Mobilität, picked up the distress signals and started, in parallel with others including SGRIM e.V. and IntegRO Mittelfranken e.V., an information campaign aimed at raising awareness among Romanian seasonal workers of their rights.

Care Workers

Health and personal-care workers are on the frontlines of the pandemic, many of them foreigners. Of the nearly 10 million economically active EU-28 free movers in 2018, nearly 1 million worked in the health and social-care sector. EU free movers have been essential in filling the gaps in demand for this sector across Europe, even before the pandemic. In Germany, up to 300,000 Eastern Europeans are working in the home-care sector. In Italy, more than 3 million people are estimated to have long-term care needs, illustrating the massive demand for health and care workers.

In Austria, more than 100,000 people work in residential care centers and private homes, many EU citizens from Central-Eastern Europe (in particular Romania, Slovak Republic, Czechia, and Hungary). Care workers are being recruited from Romania and Bulgaria for temporary care provided to those infected with COVID-19. While chartered flights were initially used to bring caregivers to Austria, a weekly night train connection will be used starting in early May to bring care workers from Romania across closed borders, to guarantee social distancing and workers’ health. Care workers commuting from neighboring Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary, and Slovenia also reported continuing to work amid the pandemic.

Given the accelerated population aging rates in Europe and limited hospital beds for long-term and rehabilitative care, the demand for care workers will be even more acute in the future. Care workers’ lack of visibility and recognition are in stark contrast to their value for European societies and the role they have in relieving pressures on health-care systems. The pandemic has raised their profile, in particular as a large share of recorded deaths caused by the virus have happened in care homes and the elderly are disproportionately affected, thus also exposing care workers to high risk. Unlike in the case of seasonal workers, there have been virtually no media reports suggesting situations where care workers have faced questionable working or living conditions during the pandemic. But there are other equally concerning trends, which simultaneously illustrate the value of these workers for European societies and their vulnerabilities in the labor market. For instance, reports from Italy flag that care workers in private homes who lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic may not be covered by the government’s financial rescue package, which focuses on supporting companies that lay off workers. Reports from Poland and Germany raise concerns over how existing models of care will be affected by the pandemic and the huge gap in care this will cause, as care workers from Eastern Europe may be prevented from travelling or may no longer wish to do so.

Notwithstanding obvious differences, care workers’ employment conditions and inherent disadvantages in the labor market are in many ways similar to those of seasonal farm workers, as explored below.

Precarious Work and the Rise of Temporary Employment Agencies

Beyond creating new challenges for intra-EU mobility in the short term, the pandemic is also shining a spotlight on pre-existing imbalances. While there are significant differences between the work conducted by seasonal farmworkers and those in the care industry, one key aspect is shared: they are often recruited by temporary employment agencies, which act as brokers between clients and workers. In principle, the relationship between agencies, clients, and workers should facilitate demand-supply matching and benefit all parties involved. In reality, power relationships are often skewed and shift more risks onto workers.

Improper living and exploitative working conditions have often been documented for seasonal and care workers alike. But the pandemic and resulting media attention have given these inadequate conditions significantly more visibility. Though the media focus may be on Romanian workers in difficult circumstances, these cases long predate the pandemic and affect temporary workers from other origins as well.

Temporary agency work is regulated at EU and national levels and covers a broad range of types of contracts. These agencies are often involved in recruiting seasonal and care workers from Eastern Europe. The rise of temporary employment agencies is one of the corollaries of the increasing flexibilization of European labor markets, the changing nature of employment relations, and the increase in atypical work. These agencies enable a quick matching of demand and supply and take over hiring and firing costs. As de facto employers, the agencies are responsible for recruitment, hiring, payment of wages and associated benefits, and firing. They also are responsible for ensuring that workers’ rights are protected. In such cases, the end receivers of the services (i.e. the agencies’ clients) do not have a direct contractual relationship with the workers and thus hold little responsibility for their well-being. This type of employment relationship raises justifiable concerns about who is accountable when workers’ rights are breached, especially in situations where the workers are self-employed or on so-called zero-hours contracts (which do not stipulate a minimum number of working hours yet in reality force contractors to be on call routinely while paid only for hours actually worked).

Temporary work has increased in the European Union over the last decade, with the share of temporary employees rising from 11.2 percent of the working-age population in 2002 to 13.2 percent in 2018. At national levels, the shares are much higher for instance in Spain, Poland, and Portugal, exceeding 20 percent. Agency work holds an important share of the temporary employment market, with temporary work agencies employing around 7 million workers in 2018, or approximately 2 percent of the EU working-age population. (Higher shares are reported in Slovenia, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Slovakia, Germany, and France.) By comparison, the EU average share of temporary employees is higher (14 percent) for those born in a different EU Member State. While in relative terms these numbers may appear small and indicate that standard employment contracts are still the norm in Europe, they are indicative of real challenges for millions who are trapped in temporary, insecure jobs. The employment outcomes, including pay and upward mobility, for migrant agency workers in particular tend to be worse than for other groups.

The paradox is that while creating the illusion of efficient demand-supply matching, temporary agency work can contribute to reinforcing precariousness in the labor market and inequalities more broadly, affecting the most vulnerable workers disproportionately. Farm work is by default conducted in isolation, which further hinders access to sources of information for seasonal workers. In the worst of cases, when due diligence is not exercised by temporary agencies and government institutions (in the sending and receiving countries), workers can be left particularly vulnerable and with little recourse to redress. Care work in private homes is equally prone to abusive practices, as workers are in many cases dependent on the information received from their recruitment agencies. Real working hours can be significantly longer than stipulated in contracts, for example, as a result of the health conditions of those being cared for. Additional tasks such as cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking, and other housework can also be added to care workers’ activities while not remunerated or formally included in contracts. Interrupted social security coverage can be particularly problematic in the case of care workers who are circular migrants and are placed in private homes for short stints. Live-in care workers are particularly exposed, as loss of a job means loss of housing. These cumulative disadvantages create strong incentives for these workers to comply with requests from their agencies and clients, regardless of legal basis.

The Race for Workers and the Continued East-West Divide

Not long before the coronavirus outbreak, the Croatian Prime Minister put freedom of movement high on the EU agenda, declaring that it is contributing to accelerated depopulation and brain drain in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE). This is feared to lead to significant social and economic disruptions in the long term, especially as a number of CEE countries (e.g. Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania) are forecast to lose between 10-25 percent of their population over the next three decades.

Amid the pandemic, the future is uncertain for the whole of Europe. But it is likely that under economic downturn and changing labor markets, several phenomena will continue to interact and influence the shape and intensity of intra-EU labor mobility, including the distribution of its costs and benefits at individual and national levels at origin and destination. Among them:

  • Some categories of workers are likely to be less relevant for receiving countries’ economies in the short term, such as those working in sectors hard hit by the lockdowns (e.g. hospitality, tourism, and manufacturing). Others may prove even more essential, such as health and care workers who already were valuable before the coronavirus wreaked havoc. These workers are needed fast, but they may not be able or willing to travel, and their academic and professional qualifications take time to be recognized. While the nature of the labor demand is likely to shift, free movers are likely to continue to constitute the pool of skills of first resort for EU economies rather than non-EU nationals.
  • Freedom of movement has been a strong instrument allowing a better matching of demand and supply across Europe. But the talent pool that reduces labor shortages in destination countries may not necessarily be in surplus in the country of origin. This is clearly the case for the health and care profession, which is in high demand and low supply all across Europe, with CEE and Southern European countries providing the highest share of EU mobile health-care staff. There are stark differences in the quality of public health-care systems between east and west, including wage levels and working conditions. While beneficial to individual free movers, emigration takes an even higher toll on health-care systems in countries of origin during a pandemic. Moreover, investments in the education and training of health and care professionals who emigrate represent a net loss for origin countries.
  • Reports about exploitative working conditions continue to raise critical questions about whether Europe’s most vulnerable mobile workers are protected. Amid pandemic, concerns about seasonal workers’ health have made the front page in sending and receiving countries. But the conditions that generate vulnerabilities in the labor market for these and similar categories of workers have long predated the COVID-19 outbreak. The public-health and economic crises are likely to continue to exacerbate these disadvantages, at higher costs for individuals and their families.
  • The categories of workers essential to European economies, as redefined by the pandemic, are also the ones usually cast off as low-skilled and often portrayed as undesirable by the receiving societies. The Brexit debate is only the most recent example: many British tabloids have for years framed EU mobility (in particular from Eastern Europe) as an influx of unwanted, low-skilled individuals who sponge off of the UK benefits system. Yet now, amid crisis in the UK farming sector, two of the tabloids leading this charge, the Sun and Daily Mail, have shifted narratives and are referring to seasonal workers as “critically important,” “helping” ones who are “coming to the rescue” of British agriculture. The turnabout also comes amid a reported incapacity to recruit British workers for low-skilled, low-paid agricultural jobs; a recent report said just 112 of 50,000 residents who indicated an interest in fruit and vegetable picking were successfully hired. The current circumstances indicate that perceptions around low-skilled migrants, often depicted as unwanted, and highly skilled migrants, who are viewed in a far more favorable light, might be shifting, if this suits the agenda.

The pandemic has proven the extreme interconnected nature of the world, which leaves all vulnerable to breakdown at a global scale. But it leaves some more vulnerable than others. As evidenced in the past, in times of economic crisis and recession, social and economic inequalities are likely to rise. The risks associated with seasonal and care work have gained visibility because of the pandemic, but they have always been there. Reinforcing regulations and mechanisms to limit these risks for workers is likely to increase the attractiveness and effectiveness of EU labor mobility in the future. It is also the prerequisite for a level playing field where the benefits of maintaining a large, flexible, and experienced workforce can counterbalance the perverse effects on individuals and their rights. Actions to ensure that workers’ rights are protected are important in the short and longer term, as the current reality underscores that precarious workers are key building blocks of EU economies, rather than accessories.


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