BUCHAREST -- Hundreds of Romanian migrant workers have been infected by the new coronavirus at slaughterhouses in Germany and the Netherlands, an emerging aspect of the pandemic that highlights the dilemma facing seasonal workers who travel west from poorer EU states.
Farmers in France, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere routinely employ migrant workers for harvests, and meat-processing companies in those and other countries also rely heavily on Romanians and other Eastern Europeans.
EU institutions have acknowledged that such workers "provide a vital workforce on farms in Germany, France, and other member states and ensure food security across Europe, but their rights are often denied."
The European Parliament and Commission said on May 25 and 26 that they were "deeply concerned by reports about the precarious working conditions and lack of safety measures for cross-border, frontier, and seasonal workers."
But even as governments on both sides have pledged to better support Romanians willing to do similar work at home or alleviate "structural" problems plaguing the cross-border labor market, there is skepticism over promises of any early fixes.
Romanians and other Eastern Europeans are frequently eager to snatch up low-paying jobs that don't interest their western counterparts.
Experts say a job that nets around 1,500 euros ($1,650) a month in Germany might fetch 430 euros ($477), the minimum wage, in Romania.
So European lockdowns imposed in March as governments scrambled to contain the spread of the coronavirus left some wealthier countries without the hundreds of thousands of workers from the continent's poorer eastern states that they normally rely on.
On April 4, Romania's minority government under National Liberal Party leader Ludovic Orban agreed to allow seasonal workers to fly abroad on charter flights organized by West European farmers, provided there was agreement with authorities in the destination countries.
Bucharest's move followed a declaration in March by EU countries that food supplies were a matter of national security and, according to Romanian Ambassador to Berlin Emil Hurezeanu, the German Agriculture and Interior ministries' lifting of travel restrictions in early April so that farmers there could pay for charter flights to transport seasonal workers from Romania.
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Days later, on April 9, thousands of workers from poor villages came to board low-cost flights at the Cluj airport in northwestern Romania.
Images of 2,000 people who weren't socially distancing streaming out of crammed buses into the regional airport to board planes under a strict lockdown caused an uproar.
By May 14, Romanian Transport Minister Lucian Bode told parliament there had been 188 charter flights carrying seasonal workers from Romania to Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, and Austria between the suspension of scheduled flights due to the pandemic on March 16 and May 4.
On April 28, a coronavirus outbreak at a slaughterhouse in Birkenfeld in southeast Germany spotlighted the plight of easterners in Western European workplaces. Some 200 Romanians were infected with COVID-19 and at least one of them eventually died.
In early May, there was news of positive tests for coronavirus at a Dutch meat-processing plant where 270 Romanians work.
On May 11, the Romanian Foreign Ministry said 13 of 80 Romanian employees who tested positive for the coronavirus at a meat-processing plant in Coesfeld, in western Germany, had been hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.
The plant, which employs Romanians and Bulgarians, was closed until further notice.
Deutsche Welle quoted North Rhine-Westphalia Health Minister Karl-Josef Laumann as suggesting that the workers' shared accommodation in tight quarters may have sparked the outbreak.
"Hundreds got ill in the abattoirs," Ambassador Hurezeanu told RFE/RL on May 21. He cited "a whole chain" of subcontractors who were negotiating pay and accommodations on behalf of such employees. "Employers didn't check out the living conditions," he said. "They [just] paid by the hour."
Hurezeanu said 70 to 75 percent of the 300,000 foreign workers who take jobs every year in Germany picking fruit and vegetables are from Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria.
Since the pandemic erupted throughout much of Europe in March, some 27,000 seasonal workers have traveled to Germany to pick asparagus and strawberries. Most are Romanian, Hurezeanu said, followed by Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, and Czechs.
He touted some progress.
Checks have been carried out to eliminate pay by the kilogram, instead of by the hour, Hurezeanu said, and collective health coverage has been expanded from 70 to 115 days.
"It's hard work and many Romanians have been doing it for many years, either directly employed [by farms] or through intermediaries in Germany and Romania," he said.
Treated Like 'Slaves'?
Hundreds of Romanian workers staged a protest in Bonn on May 19 over unpaid salaries and poor working conditions, saying they were being treated "like slaves" after the strawberry farm where they were working went bankrupt.
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In a bid the same day to lure some of them back home, Romanian Agriculture Minister Adrian Oros announced a package of at least 20 million euros ($22 million) to support young farmers who have previously worked abroad.
Oros also told parliament that starting on June 1, the government would raise the minimum monthly wage in the agricultural sector to 3,000 lei ($690) per month to persuade Romanian migrants to stay in the country.
Some of the Bonn protesters found jobs on nearby farms, while others returned to Romania.
After the COVID-19 outbreaks at the abattoirs in Germany, Romanian Labor Minister Violeta Alexandru visited the country on May 18 to see the situation firsthand. She met with German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil and Food and Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner.
Two days later, on May 20, following pressure from German farming unions, the German government said it would pass legislation to remove subcontractors from the hiring process. The move, supporters said, would ensure better conditions for seasonal workers from low-income countries.
Heil cited "structural" problems in the industry that required deep-rooted reform, noting that up to 80 percent of workers in some slaughterhouses are employed by subcontractors or even sub-subcontractors.
The German government is expected to submit a bill to require companies to directly employ any workers involved in slaughtering and meat processing from January, although there will be exceptions for small artisanal businesses.
Hurezeanu, who attended a meeting with senior officials from the German Interior and Agriculture ministries to discuss the bill, called it "a radical change" in the law.
"We were the co-authors," he said. "It was built on our suffering."
Others are more skeptical.
Opposition Social Democrat Lia Olguta Vasilescu, a former labor minister, on April 9 equated Romania's migrant-labor predicament to being a "colony."
"I hear that some foreign ambassadors made themselves useful these days," she said, in an allusion to the deals on letting seasonal workers travel despite the lockdown.
She suggested that officials "no longer care about the anti-corruption fight, or whether we have health materials so we don't die, but about their plantations that no longer have slaves."
Vasilescu said Romania quarantines Romanians arriving from abroad "on the state's money and, when we're sure they're healthy, we send them to others [abroad] so our asparagus stays in the fields, because in any case we don't sell what we grow, but only [what's] imported."
The current labor minister, Alexandru, dismissed such characterizations following her trip to Germany. "Romanians are not treated like slaves for the most part," she said on May 27, acknowledging that living and working conditions varied.
"Decent conditions are a relative thing."