2020.06.22 08:00

Pandemic bares exploitation of migrant workers. Baltics are also to blame

from the archives
Jokūbas Sąlyga 2020.06.22 08:00

With walls going up across Europe, migrant labour from the East became crucial to food security and international supply chains. Yet, workers have once again faced exploitation, and this time, Western Europe is not the only culprit, writes Jokūbas Sąlyga, a lecturer at UK’s Nottingham Trent University. 

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Lockdowns across Europe have revealed an acute shortage of agricultural workers, with agro-businesses across Western Europe resorting to chartered flights to bring hundreds of Eastern Europeans to work the fields.

Despite the rhetoric of providing safety, the flights contained no empty seats and arriving labourers were forced into cramped conditions. Coronavirus-linked deaths and strikes followed.

And yet, the Western employer (or ‘the West’ as such) is not the sole culprit in the European theatre of exploitation, as Belarusian, Ukrainian and other labourers have endured abhorrent conditions of work in the Baltic states for some time.

Predicaments of a migrant worker in Lithuania

Over the past few years, migrant labour has played an indispensable part in patching up the yawning gaps in Lithuania’s labour market following an unprecedented austerity-induced outward migration.

The number of non-EU nationals in Lithuania has tripled – climbing from slightly over 18,000 in 2016 to almost 57,000 at the beginning of 2020.

For Ukrainian and Belarusian migrants, everyday conditions at work are synonymous with lower than promised remuneration, health risks and intimidation.

Testimonies of long-haul truck drivers employed by Lithuanian companies, such as Sev Transport and Avima, reveal gigantic differentials between the agreed-upon and actually received remuneration, no adequate rest times between shifts and deductions from wages for fabricated violations and fines.

Migrant workers employed in this sector are often paid their wages in cash, required to drive unserviced vehicles and, when their services are no longer required, left on the roads of Western Europe without any funds to return home.

Attempts to organise strikes are met with employers’ resort to strikebreaking tactics. Abhorrent employment conditions can also be inferred from migrant workers’ increasing proclivity to voice their concerns at the State Labour Inspectorate.

Until recently, it was common for several Ukrainians to arrange consultative appointments at this institution every week. These were largely queries around the violations of labour rights, employment conditions and unpaid wages.

In 2019, the Labour Dispute Commission received 66 requests for labour dispute investigations from Ukrainian nationals.

At the height of the pandemic, Lithuania’s construction sector reported the sharpest losses. Sectoral unemployment rate reached the vicinity of 12 percent. In April alone, the sector reportedly witnessed the departure of no fewer than six hundred migrant workers.

This fraction, however, attests to a proverbial drop in the ocean. According to most reports, migrant workforce continued to be employed even during the quarantine and, fearful of impending redundancies, frequently did not take the time off work even when displaying virus symptoms.

For their part, the employers remained largely indifferent to the necessity of guaranteeing basic health and safety standards for their workers. This goes in tune with the sector's now-notorious reputation for illegal deployment of Ukrainian and Belarusian labour that coincided with non-existent employment contracts, intimidation and near-fatal workplace injuries.

At the time when new recruitment of migrant labour is rendered practically impossible due to the closure of visa issuance centres, representatives of foreign labour recruitment agencies suggest that Lithuanians who returned from Western Europe during the pandemic might stay in the country permanently.

Despite this optimistic prognosis, there is little reason to doubt that once the quarantine ends, gaps in the labour market will once again be filled with returning Ukrainian and Belarusian workers.

Estonia: No longer of service?

Recent developments in Estonia’s labour scene aptly reflect the age-old adage that migrant workers constitute a useful reserve army of labour that can be expelled just as quickly as it can be imported.

The initial reaction of the Estonian parliament to the Covid-19 pandemic has been to approve amendments to the Aliens Act and the Obligation to Leave and Prohibition on Entry Act.

As a result, entry for non-EU nationals to the country has been shut and migrant workers from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova employed on a short-term basis – notably in the sectors of construction, manufacturing, transport, services and agriculture – were forced to return home once their work permits expired or they were made redundant.

The amendments were introduced permanently and extend beyond the period of emergency. The size of migrant workforce will see a significant contraction.

According to the director-general of Citizenship and Migration Policy Department at the Ministry of Interior, Ruth Annus, the point of expelling migrant workers from the country was to avert criminal behaviour.

She notes that “without their legal income, there is a risk that the foreigners will remain illegally in Estonia, go to other EU countries or commit other offences”.

Meanwhile, the far-right Conservative People's Party's (EKRE) Minister of Interior, Mart Helme, previously referred to visa liberalisation measures for Ukrainian citizens as Russia’s “Trojan Horse“.

For some of Estonia’s far-right MPs who are mobilising the rhetoric of an imminent unemployment crisis – which, based on EKRE’s estimates, would reach 100,000 – the state of emergency offers a unique opportunity to “ethnically purify" the labour market.

No wonder that Estonia’s farmer organisations were infuriated by these developments, which could potentially leave harvests rotting in fields as consumers opt for food grown in other countries.

Expressing concern over the lack of available migrant workforce – the concern that now also finds echoes in Latvia – they went on to say that Estonian citizens and residents who have recently lost their jobs could not attain the required skills for agricultural work.

While Estonia’s Farmer of the Year 2016 Lembit Paal recently argued that there were virtually no Estonian who “wants to come to work in the countryside”, the job portal CVKeskus reported in late May that the most sought-after seasonal job was that of a strawberry picker with an average of 116 applications per one position.

This indicates how the rising unemployment rate in the country inevitably compels those recently made redundant to search for temporary work, whose remuneration – ranging from 600 to 1,200 euros for strawberry pickers – is and will remain well below the national average.

As Estonia’s borders with countries outside the Schengen area are bound to remain closed in the near future, one segment of the labour force is placed to experience some of the exploitative conditions hitherto mostly experienced by a migrant worker or her Estonian counterpart in informal employment.

As revealed in the Postimees’ investigation last year, these conditions include 12-hour working days, confidentiality clauses – with penalties of up to a year's salary in case they are broken – and absence of any written employment contracts. They partly explain why the agro-business lament the recently imposed restrictions on the movement and recruitment of migrant labour.

Just a few days after Estonia announced the dismissals of temporary migrant workers, the Parliamentary Rural Affairs Committee opted for extending work permits for those employed in agriculture.

Having realised that their departure would risk disturbing food production chains in the country, the government proclaimed on April 6 that foreigners residing in the country since March 17 could continue working until July 31, provided that their employers register short-term employment with the Police and the Border Guard Board.

When this period expires, agricultural migrant workers will be given a month to leave Estonia. The situation is even worse for migrant workers deemed ‘not essential’ or whose maximum permitted period of stay has expired. They are expected to leave the country “as soon as possible”.

While some have been placed in a legal limbo due to the closure of borders, others have to try their luck searching for employment opportunities in a reconfigured environment.

With the far-right rhetoric on the rise, prospects of finding a job and being subjected to exploitative workplace conditions now go in tandem with public attitudes that migrant presence is at loggerheads with the welfare of Estonian citizens and residents.

Nationalist vocabularies of crisis

The decision to expel migrant workers employed on a short-term basis in order to boost employment opportunities for the “Estonian” working class rests on a distinctly nationalist narration of the pandemic.

This relegates the exploitation of workers and employment conditions to the margins of public attention.

To a certain extent, the narration parallels earlier discourses on the Eurozone debt crisis, recently resurrected under the rubric of mutualised EU-wide debt instruments, which operate through the supposed distinctions between “frugal’’ and “profligate” nations (and nationalities).

Such distinctions gloss over fundamental class relations configured by neoliberalism within the allegedly “homogenous” nation-states. They also articulate politics as constituted primarily by nationalist narratives – the sine qua non of far-right’s political sensibilities.

Relatedly, if the multi-ethnic character of Estonia’s labour force has provided convenient resort for private capital to sow divisions between “native Estonian” and Russophone workers since the post-communist transformation, the present situation makes this strategy still easier to deploy.

It is now “the migrant” who threatens to undermine the well-being of the Estonian worker.

Cartographies of mobilisation and struggle

In the absence of social protections, open borders will serve to continuously reproduce labour shortages side by side with labour reserves.

The deafening silence of social democratic left parties on the issues of emigration-induced depopulation, families torn apart, labour shortages, EU-wide wage differentials – and the complicity of the “European integration project” in all of this – serves to entrench the worst forms of exploitation. It also permits the far-right to continuously raise its head.

When Lithuanian employers increasingly chose to undermine workers' demands of higher wages by recruiting migrant labour, the country’s trade unions voiced their concerns about the emergent forms of social dumping.

However, the Lithuanian unions’ capacity to resist the race to the bottom in employment conditions is severely limited, as a section of arriving workers might be employed through temporary recruitment agencies registered in Poland.

Through the use of the so-called D-visas, migrant workers are ‘loaned’ to companies located in the Baltics from elsewhere.

In this light, the Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation’s calls to regulate Polish temporary employment agencies operating in Lithuania is one measure to be welcomed.

Other measures include the trade unions’ readiness to approach Ukrainian workers with leaflets in the Russian language advising about available support or recent expressions of international solidarity with Ukrainian labour organisations struggling against the new labour code.

The realms for future reflection will have to transcend the divisive rhetoric about safeguarding the welfare of ‘national’ workers at the expense of ‘migrants’ and address difficult questions around strategies of unionising Ukrainians and Belarusians.

Positive outcomes on this register will depend on a complex interplay among national industrial relations systems, sectoral dynamics, EU regulation and the strength of individual labour organisations.

As the experience from Western Europe and the US demonstrates, migrant workers – including those from the new EU member states – took action themselves and won better employment conditions against all odds.

They did so in industries with little or no union membership, against sustained attacks from employers and in environments of linguistic barriers, intimidation and threats of deportation.

Amid exploitation during the pandemic, around two hundred Romanian workers, organised by the Freie ArbeiterInnen-Union (FAU) at an asparagus farm in Bornheim, went on strike to demand unpaid wages.

Against this backdrop, one particularly refreshing example in Lithuania has been the efforts of the May 1st Labour Union.

In late 2019, the union represented striking Turkish construction workers building the Darius and Girėnas Stadium in Kaunas, showing that solidarity extends beyond the remit of geopolitics.

It is high time we augmented our decisive condemnations of Russia’s foreign policy in the region with a radical critique of employment conditions faced by the workers from Ukraine, Belarus and elsewhere.

Organising and standing shoulder to shoulder with those who come to earn their living in the Baltics is as pertinent as ever.

Jokūbas Sąlyga is a lecturer in politics at Nottingham Trent University.