[Thou shalt] Honour the asparagus!
Romanian Agricultural Labour in Germany during the COVID-19 Season
by Manuela Boatca
Not even a pandemic should endanger the Germans’ asparagus consumption. Not even when Romanian seasonal workers bear the health costs for it – or die.
On April 11, a 57-year-old Romanian harvest worker died from his corona infection.1 He had worked on an asparagus farm in Bad Krozingen in the state of Baden-Württemberg before the borders were closed. His employer had not adequately protected him from infection with Covid-19 – just as he hadn’t protected his co-workers.
Other Romanian laborers from the same enterprise reported that they are sharing a room with four other people, have not been tested or isolated despite exhibiting symptoms and had to wear the same face masks for several days.2 Over 15 workers from this asparagus farm have now tested positive for Covid-19.3
Most of the seasonal laborers who work in Germany’s fields come from Romania, the country has the highest share of a population at risk of poverty in the EU.4 As a result, more than 20 per cent of Romanians live and work abroad.
Seasonal labour is an alternative to permanent emigration. Some Romanians therefore exercise their right to free movement within the European Union, which allows them to work in another EU country for up to 70 days.
According to EU legislation, workers are entitled to “equal treatment with nationals of the host country in terms of access to employment, initial and continuing training, trade unions, housing and all other social and tax advantages, as well as in terms of working conditions.”6
Officially, they receive the German minimum wage of 9.35 Euros per hour.7 Yet from that are deducted not only the fees paid to agencies that place workers in Germany, but also some or all of their travel expenses, eight euros a day for accommodation and four euros a day for lunch.8
During the corona pandemic, there are new regulations for seasonal workers in Germany. Until the end of October 2020, they can now be employed for up to 115 days without social security, which should give German companies “greater planning reliability”.9
Yet the seasonal workers do not get the same planning reliability as their employers. They have no health insurance coverage in Germany during their employment. They have to travel on charter flights to avoid the risk of infection during long bus journeys.
The employment contracts further stipulate that working hours may be extended by up to 50 per cent over the legal maximum of eight hours. Working on Sundays and public holidays is also allowed if deemed necessary.10
These provisions are part of a concept for the “limited entry of seasonal workers under strict conditions,” which was presented by federal interior minister Horst Seehofer and the agriculture minister Julia Klöckner at the beginning of April.
Up to 80,000 workers are to be allowed to enter Germany in April and May. But it is unclear when they will be able to return. For this purpose, airlines require the chartering of entire aircrafts with at least 150 seats.11
It was also unclear to what types of employment the exemption would apply. Only the image of people bending over long rows of asparagus which accompanied the press release hinted at the prime target of the regulation.
When it entered into force, Germany’s borders with neighboring countries had already been closed for more than two weeks due to the corona pandemic.
The corona pandemic exposes and further exacerbates structural inequalities. Yet the working conditions under which Eastern European workers are employed in Western Europe are not only of a systemic character, but they also have a long history.
Already during late-19th century industrialisation in the German Reich, seasonal agricultural work became increasingly unattractive for the domestic population. Industrial centres such as the Ruhr area attracted hundreds of thousands of German workers and their families. Conversely, the recruitment of Polish workers on the large estates east of the Elbe became increasingly profitable.12
Among others, sociologist Max Weber investigated the growing importance of inexpensive Polish labour on large country estates as early as 1895. Even though the Polish peasants had German citizenship at the time, Max Weber described the situation as an “economic struggle between … nationalities”.13
The desire to protect “the Germanism [Deutschtum] of the East” led Weber to defend “German standards of value” against international standards of social justice. He saw these as emanating from political economy:
“[…] the science of economic policy [Volkswirtschaftspolitik] is a political science. It is a servant of politics, not the day-to-day politics of the individuals and classes who happen to be ruling at a particular time, but the lasting power-political interests of the nation [der dauernden machtpolitischen Interessen der Nation].”14
Still today, the political economy of asparagus consumption promotes an “economic struggle between nationalities” without calling for social justice. The Corona crisis reveals a German economic policy in which the same power-political interests of the nation are enforced that Max Weber conjured up 100 years ago.
In a renewed “struggle between nationalities”, the protection and rights of Eastern European workers are pitted against the safe-guarding of the consumption habits of Western European populations.
In the meantime, Romanian workers are also flown to the UK to help with the strawberry harvest – to a country in which they have been explicitly unwanted since Brexit. France is signalling labour demand for the upcoming grape harvest.
Parts of the German, Romanian, and British press are discussing whether the supply of food to Western Europe should be secured at the expense of the health of Eastern European seasonal workers.
In a worldwide pandemic, we must depend instead on a global cooperation that is based on social justice and that guarantees equal labour rights and health protection to all.
Manuela Boatcă is Professor of Sociology at Albert-Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany. She is co-editor of Decolonizing European Sociology; and Global, Multiple and Postcolonial Modernities; and author of From Neoevolutionism to World-Systems Analysis.
The article was first published online in Germany by the German magazine KATAPULT on 30. April 2020. It was translated into English by Philipp Lottholz. The English version original appeared on the LeftEast Website. Reproduced with permission.
 Taz (ed.): Schutzlos bei der Ernte, on: taz.de (16th of April 2020).  Capital (ed.): Apel disperat din Germania! Muncitorii plecați la cules sparanghel se tem că vor muri pe capete, on: capital.ro (19th of April 2020).  Stuttgarter Zeitung (ed.): Zahl infizierter Erntehelfer in Bad Krozingen auf 16 gestiegen, auf: stuttgarter-zeitung.de (29th April 2020).  Eurostat: Statistics on income poverty, on: ec.europa.eu (May 2019).  Friedrich Ebert Foundation (ed.): Săracii români sunt cei mai săraci dintre săracii Europei, on: monitorsocial.ro (Data from: 2016/2017).  Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration: EU Citizens, (4th May 2020)
 DW (ed.): Der Spiegel: “O viață pentru sparanghel?”, on: dw.com (23rd of April 2020).  Ibid.  Federal Ministry of Interior Building and Community (ed.): Klöckner/Seehofer: “Vorgaben des Gesundheitsschutzes und Erntesicherung bringen wir zusammen”, press release from 2nd of April 2020, on: bmi.bund.de.  For an example of a work contract in Romanian-German translation, see : static4.libertatea.ro (accessed 30th of April 2020).  Eurowings (ed.): Eurowings fliegt Erntehelfer zurück in ihre Heimat, on: eurowings.com (no date).  Federal Centre for Political Education (ed.): Geschichte der Migration in Deutschland, on: bpb.de (14th of May 2018).  Weber, Max: The National State and Economic Policy (Freiburg Address), in: Economy and Society (9/4)1980, pp. 428-449.  Ibid., emphasis in original.