Covid-19 and Migrant Labourers

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the incongruent rhetoric between the WHO guidelines and the treatment of agricultural labourers in EU member states and the US states. As the pandemic spread, WHO recommended that individuals maintain a social distance of 1 to 2 metres. However, housing and working conditions in the horticultural sector are not conducive to social distancing measures (Perez, 2020; Murray, 2020; Grant, 2020; Paun, 2020). The precarity of this workforce is largely migrants who endure poor conditions, are beholden to restrictive labour contracts, lack advocates in case of emergencies (such as Covid-19), and routinely work to live.

Many countries like the UK, Germany, France, and specific states in the US virtue signaled the recently furloughed and unemployed, by claiming a patriotic duty to help the country in the middle of this crisis. The People’s Land Army in the UK and Victory Gardens in the US, evoked a sense of wholesome bootstrapping dating back to WWII. Unfortunately for the UK, they reported an inability to recruit enough workers. Of the 50,000 applicants, only 30 percent had farming experience and after interviews were held, only 112 people committed to working for £10 per hour, eight to ten hours per day. Although this work has been deemed ‘casual’ and ‘temporary’, the lack of nationals willing to work in the fields and the lack of farmers willing to hire nationals who do not have the requisite skills or knowledge of horticulture, speaks to the very nature of what it means to be ‘skilled’. A major stumbling block for many countries has been linked to the inability and unwillingness of nationals to work long hours and endure manual labour. Despite the sentiment that much of the labour in the horticultural sector requires a ‘high level of skill’, experience, and ability to endure harsh working conditions, many countries have yet to institute long term changes to the wages and the rights of migrant labourers.

After the national call for workers bore little fruit, the governments of France, Germany, and the UK stated that the need for labour superseded the possible effects of Covid-19 and chartered flights while instituting temperature checks upon arrival; in Belgium officials discussed options an increase of remunerations for nationals working in horticulture, and yet they were unable to meet their labour needs. In the US, White House officials invoked national security priority that allowed them to wave in person interviews for H2A visa applications and increase funding for US farmers. Furthermore, on 2 April 2020, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Agriculture Secretary Sony Purdue proposed a blanket reduction in guest worker wages to help offset the future loss of profits for farmers.

The Environment Secretary for the UK, George Eustice, believes the 2020 Seasonal Workers Pilot expansion allows government officials to test the effectiveness of the UK immigration system while simultaneously meeting the needs of UK farmers. The US Citizenship and Migration Services arm of the Department of Homeland Security (USCIS and DHS respectively) encouraged workers who were symptomatic to seek medical attention and stated that “doing so will not negatively affect any alien as part of any future Public Charge Analysis” and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Removal Operations (ERO) will “exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention.”

Although migrant labourers have long been a structural component of the horticultural sector, many countries are having to face the duality between feeding their countries and preventing further infection of Covid-19. Workers who have signed contracts to work during this pandemic lack safeguards, are unable to travel home if they fall ill, and are quarantined in farm housing. They may be quarantined from the citizenry, but they are not quarantined from each other. Socially, this instills the in-group and out-group rhetoric espoused by much of the immigration language and entrenches ‘othering’ while depleting the possibility of social emancipation.

Food policy has advocated for labour unions and has bridged the gap between agriculture policy and fair wages, but has yet to address the dissonance between immigration and the resulting exploitation in the horticulture sector. In the time of Covid-19, much of the public discourse has highlighted this dissonance, but if workers are truly ‘critical’ and ‘essential’ then they must be treated as such by the governments and corporations seeking their employment regardless of timing.

Food justice nerd for hire. I spend my days thinking about the intersectionality of inclusion and access to food. Here you’ll find those thoughts made manifest.