Balkan Insight: Western Demand Wins Romanian Workers Coronavirus Travel Waiver

Scenes of the packed terminal, breaking all social-distancing restrictions imposed by the government to tackle the spread of COVID-19, caused consternation in the European Union country, where the novel coronavirus had killed more than 300 people as of Sunday.

But they also underscore the trade-off between tackling the pandemic and protecting economies: Western European agriculture is dependent on cheap Eastern European labour, and tens of thousands of Romanians and their families are dependent on the pay.

Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban said the flouting of regulations was “unacceptable” but that “the absorption of this workforce [in Romania] is today almost impossible.”

Indeed, it was Orban’s government that on April 4 issued an order exempting all charter flights carrying seasonal workers from the restrictions imposed on commercial flights to and from COVID-19 hotspots.

The authorities, recruiters and foreign employers have been accused of endangering lives.

But the government says it expects between 80,000 and 90,000 Romanians – many of them from impoverished rural areas – to make similar trips for seasonal work in Western Europe this year. It is promising measures to make sure distancing regulations are respected.

“These people act out of despair,” said Sorin Faur, a human resources expert and founder of the Bucharest-based HR Academy consultancy. “They have no other chance.”

Labour supply almost certain to fall short

At the other end, Germany has lifted coronavirus travel restrictions for migrant workers, coming to the aid of farmers who say they need 80,000 workers over the next two months to harvest produce and ensure supermarket shelves are not left bare.

Likewise, Italy’s Confederation of Direct Harvesters, Coldiretti, says 15,000 Romanians will travel to the region of Veneto, part of a northern strip of the country where COVID-19 gained its first major foothold in Europe, to pick fruit and vegetables this spring.

Spain, another of Europe’s worst-hit countries, is preparing a decree to allow farmers to hire 150,000 temporary workers; Britain, too, needs 70,000.

Faur said Europe as a whole needed between 800,000 and one million seasonal workers each year, and that the pandemic could not have come at a worse moment for the agricultural sector.

With imports limited, domestic produce is vital to meeting demand, while the effect of fruit and vegetables left to rot on a significant scale would only compound the continent’s economic misery. Hence the urgent waivers for seasonal workers, but even then, Faur said he doubted employers would get the numbers they need.

“We’ll certainly have producers who won’t be able to enlist enough labour on time,” he said, citing fear of the coronavirus and the fact most seasonal workers travel by land, a difficult journey in pandemic-stricken Europe. Moving them all by plane would be too expensive.

“It is almost impossible to transport hundreds of thousands with planes,” Faur said.

On 8 April, Romania’s National Union of Road Transporters called for a similar waiver for chartered buses connecting Romania with other countries.

The Romanian National Institute of Statistics, INS, told BIRN it does not have data on the number of agricultural seasonal workers or their contribution to the economy.

Asparagus and strawberries in Germany

The desperation of Western European farmers is evident in the proliferation in Romania of job ads offering seasonal work.

Temporary job offers in Western European countries, particularly on German asparagus farms, offer two months of work on salaries starting from 1,500 euros per month, far more than many Romanians can expect to earn at home.

Marius Laurentiu Miu, a recruiter, told BIRN that every year he recruits 200-300 Romanians for asparagus and strawberry farms in Germany and cabbage and salad picking in the UK.

UK coronavirus restrictions mean hiring for UK farms has halted. But Miu is looking for 100 Romanians ready to fly from the central city of Sibiu to Germany on May 4.

“They are going to collect asparagus and strawberries in Lubeck, in northern Germany,” Miu told BIRN by phone.

The number of applicants for seasonal jobs in Germany has multiplied by “four or five” this year, Miu said.

“Many left jobless are looking for seasonal work these days”.

Germany had initially banned the arrival of foreign workers, but Miu was confident his services would eventually be required.

“The German employer told us that there is no way the asparagus and the strawberries will remain uncollected,” he said.

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