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Peasant farming needs real perspectives, not discrimination of migrant workers

29 April 2011

In July of 2010, the European Commission published a proposal to the Parliament and Council for a directive that would establish conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purposes of seasonal employment. This directive would not apply to seasonal workers from EU nations, or to third-country nationals who already reside in the EU.

Before providing a more detailed position on the tenets of this directive proposal, we would like to highlight two prominent trends from the last few years that explain the disgraceful conditions for agricultural workers (mainly migrants) in Europe that it is claimed this proposal will regulate:

The liberalisation of the farming sector applies constant pressure to farm gate prices, which makes small-scale family farms unviable and leads to increasing modernisation and industrialisation in the farming sector. Farming areas with very different conditions, especially working conditions, are all subjected to the sacrosanct paradigm of competitiveness, which is generally detrimental to working conditions on European farms. Year upon year more lifestyles are uncovered with working and living conditions that are sometimes verging on slavery – this is harsh evidence of the eroding rights of those women and men who live and work on farms.

A second development over the last few years has further worsened conditions for one specific type of farm workers, namely migrants. The European policy on migration tends to be increasingly restrictive and discriminatory – firstly to limit mass migration, and secondly to select those better migrants that European competitiveness seems to rely on. The migrants are only considered as how they could best serve the economy within a “just-in-time” business model. This incredibly utilitarian model gives priority to highly trained migrants (blue-card immigrants), but accepts “helping hands” for a shorter period (and with less rights) to pick our fruit and veg, to serve us our coffee and to clean out our holiday houses.

These two trends both reinforce worsening working and living conditions.

This directive once again adopts populist security arguments that strengthen the “us” versus “them” feeling within the social fabric. The migration group of European Coordination Via Campesina categorically rejects this discriminatory approach.

Free circulation according to the “one job = one permit” principle is the only answer to the failed policies of control and exclusion that currently exist all around the world, including the framework currently in force in Europe. These policies have led to tens of thousands of people dying and drowning over the past few years in their attempts to cross the walls and barriers that surround Europe. The insecurity and suffering of the people without legal status (undocumented immigrants) that live and work in Europe (between 4.5 and 8 million) is reaching such a level of inhumanity and discrimination that an immediate legitimisation of their status is absolutely essential.

This is the context within which the directive needs to be applied. However, much to our regret, the current proposal does not address the real problems. Instead, it attempts to pass them off as inevitable and proposes to maintain the status quo (apart from one or two quick fixes):

“EU economies face a structural need for seasonal work for which labour from within the EU is expected to become less and less available. As regards future skills shortages in the EU, traditional sectors will continue to play an important role and the structural need for low-skilled and low-qualified workers is likely to continue expanding. It should also be pointed out that there is a more permanent need for unskilled labour within the EU. It is expected to be increasingly difficult to fill these gaps with EU national workers, primarily owing to the fact that these workers consider seasonal work unattractive.” (page 3).

Instead of addressing what is a disgraceful situation, this proposed directive attempts to put a frame around practices that need to be completely rethought and based on new foundations. We deplore practices that base free circulation of people around seasonal permits, obligatory circular migration, the granting of permits based on the condition of guaranteed work and the creation of a sub-category of workers, …

ECVC is battling for social and sustainable farming that guarantees the rights of small-scale family farmers and farm workers without submitting them to the diktat of prices. Farming should be able to provide high quality stable sustainable employment. This is only possible through a new model for agriculture and strongly reinforcing legislation that protects workers. The EU simply wants the work without the worker! Instead of legitimising the millions of undocumented immigrants, it attempts to relocate yet more workers (since it is not able to relocate the work itself) that it then wants to be able to get rid of once it is sure it no longer needs them.

It tramples all over equal treatment and voluntarily discriminates a sector of workers. It also discriminates between immigrants; those who are supposedly skilled have the red carpet rolled out for them, whilst the rest are firmly shown the exit.

Furthermore, this proposed directive is based on other presumptions that are considered “normal” and necessary:

– That agriculture is missing workers – when really it is missing perspectives of a socially sustainable future.

– Competitiveness means reducing the price of production and this must come from a reduction in labour costs, social protection, etc..

– There needs to be greater flexibility, less bureaucracy for employers, the number of insecure work contracts needs to be maintained or increased, etc..

– The seasonal worker is presented as a possible cheat, and there is a need for assurances that none of them can remain in their “host” country once their contract has finished: “To prevent overstaying of third-country seasonal workers, a maximum duration of stay per calendar year is laid down as well as the explicit obligation to return after that period; there is no possibility of status change.” (page 6, article 3).

– Each member state remains free to fix the number of workers to import whilst taking into account a certain number of criteria…. We recall that the model the commission has proposed is similar to the OMI contract in France, which has often been criticised by unions and the justice system for being discriminatory (Halde deliberation, December 2009).

In fact, all the commission is proposing is a directive that each state will implement within its own legal system as it wishes and according to its own calender (with a limit of two years after publication in the Official Journal of the EU). According to the text itself “The proposal constitutes a relatively small change from the status quo in terms of both the legislative action required and the burden on prospective employers” (page 8).

For these reasons, we demand:

– The ratification of Convention 184 of the ILO regarding security and health in agriculture and the United Nations Convention on the protection of migrant workers and their families.

– Equal treatment and equal rights for all workers, that this be independent of their origin or status, and that specific protections be established for vulnerable groups.

– The inclusion of mechanisms that assure the application and implementation of these rights whilst avoiding discourse that lacks content.

– A guarantee to respect human rights should take into account the people who are currently undocumented because they do not have work permits. It should regularise their situation and give them access to the labour market.

– That the limit on the length of stay should be eliminated, alongside introducing the possibility of workers to change employer and employment as well as allowing families to be together.

– That the guarantees and work practices applicable in the destination country are laid out precisely, that the conventions and laws established in each country should be available.

– That recruitment should be transparent, working conditions should be written and provided to the worker then translated into their language.

– Upon arriving to the destination country there should be requirements for basic training in the farming practices that workers will be involved in – to prevent risks in the workplace (accidents and illness).

– Sufficient quality accommodation should be made available and inspected by the different government agencies, unions and professional organisations to ensure that it meets basic living standards.

– The creation of an observatory, financed by the agricultural budget, to watch over social practices in employers of seasonal workers and in organisations throughout the whole food supply chain.

– We reaffirm the emphasis that we place on social conditions being the basis for support from the European agricultural policy.

ECVC will not accept that the search for competitiveness should be based on eroding the rights of small-scale family farms and workers. Instead, we call for the protection of practices associated with small-scale family farms and those practices that allow the tight-knit social fabric of rural communities to remain intact – to guarantee that priority be given to the supply of healthy food for local communities.

Also, going against the two trends of greater movement of farm produce and limiting and selecting migrants, we demand free circulation for people and the application of the principle of food sovereignty.

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