In late March, Christina* received a message that made her heart sink. With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, the elderly woman she had been taking care of was letting her go until “things are normal again”.
Christina, who migrated from the Philippines to the Netherlands, is one of thousands of undocumented migrants from places like Indonesia, Eritrea and Nigeria who come to Europe to work. So, unlike legal residents who lost their jobs during the pandemic, Christina never had access to the special government support schemes rolled out across the continent. She feared she would lose everything.
“I needed that money,” Christina told VICE News. “I have very little saved up, because I send a lot of it back to my family. I didn’t have enough money for rent. I was scared that I was going to end up on the street.”
Christina’s story is one of many examples of how already challenging situations for poor migrants have been worsened by the pandemic. It also shows how, despite organisations like the European Commission describing these workers as crucial, many migrants – both documented and undocumented – have continued to be forgotten and exploited.
Bad working conditions quickly worsened
At the same time Christina lost her job, European farmers came out with a bleak prediction: without the usual stream of migrant labourers, crops would be left to rot in the fields.
Governments acted swiftly. Documented migrant workers – employed largely in agriculture – were deemed essential, becoming some of just a handful of travellers allowed to pass through shut borders on specially chartered flights.
Yet while governments may have gone the extra mile to get migrants to their fields and processing plants, once they arrived, they were met with the same exploitative temp agencies, low wages and inhumane working conditions as ever.
Many of these jobs leave little room for social distancing and proper hygiene. This is especially the case in meat processing factories in countries like Germany, which were already notorious for appalling working conditions. The workers in these factories – mostly from Poland, Romania and Hungary – are brought in temporarily via subcontractors, and work for low pay while having to cover their own travel costs, lodging and even work clothing. They also live and work in overcrowded dormitories and assembly lines, which often lack proper ventilation, putting them at even more at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.
Many of these meat processing plants later turned into coronavirus hotspots. At one of the most heavily-infected plants in western Germany, over 1,500 workers (nearly a quarter of the workforce) tested positive.
Peter Schmidt, head of European affairs at NGG, Germany’s national food and catering union, doesn’t find this surprising. His union has been at war with the meat industry for years, and was a key player in establishing a minimum wage in 2014.
“You have to understand what we’re dealing with here,” Schmidt told VICE News. “Many of these workers are working two shifts a day, or in some cases three, illegally. They live in isolated houses with four, five, six, seven people in one tiny room that’s falling apart. Temperatures inside can be freezing. Sometimes, according to our information, you even have people sharing the same bed so that they can make extra shifts.”
Much of NGG’s work with migrant Eastern European workers involves making them aware of their rights through a project called Faire Mobilität (fair mobility). This work has become even more important because of the pandemic, he says, but outreach can be hard because many workers fear retaliation if they speak out.
Trapped, forgotten, and nowhere to go
In the province of Huelva in southern Spain, thousands of seasonal migrant workers – largely women from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa – arrive in January to pick fruits and vegetables. Many of them aren’t able to read the contracts they sign, and end up living in shanty towns that lack running water or electricity. They work 12 to 15 hours a day.
Carmen Vásquez works as a volunteer on the ground for APDHA, a human rights organisation that provides food, clothing and water to migrant workers, and lobbies for their rights on both the local and national level. She described the situation as a humanitarian crisis.
“People are living on the street. They already work under modern slavery conditions, and now they don’t even have the little money that they earned,” she explained. “Even before, they were packed into tiny houses with 20 to 50 people. This makes them incredibly vulnerable to the virus, especially because they don’t have access to water.”
Resources from the national government are slow to arrive, Vásquez said, and, in some cases, don’t arrive at all. APDHA have been relentlessly trying to get help from municipal governments, but getting through to officials has been difficult.
“We try to talk to the people who can make a change, but they never seem to be available,” she says. “Nothing seems to change. Now that they’ve finished collecting the fruits for this season, nobody seems to care.”
Months later, the Moroccan and Spanish governments have only now come to a repatriation agreement– but the process of actually getting workers back to their home countries is expected to be slow. In the meantime, the military has been deployed to the towns to prevent infections from growing.
“If they were football players, they would’ve been sent back home right away,” Alicia Navascures, a Spanish human rights activist, told DW, Germany’s national broadcaster. “But they’re poor women.”
Pandemic as a spotlight
Over the course of conversations with activists, labor organisations and migrants themselves, one theme was continually emphasised: these issues aren’t anything new. Rather, the pandemic has merely shined a light on systems of inequality and exploitation that have been in place for decades.
“The pandemic is only making things that were already extremely difficult worse,” Michelle LeVoy, director of PICUM, an umbrella organisation that advocates for undocumented migrant rights, told VICE News. “It’s close to, if not already, catastrophic for a lot of people.”
The extra attention might be moving some things in the right direction. In Portugal, for example, undocumented migrants were provided temporary residency, and in Ireland they were given access to medical care. But these are still exceptions.
In Germany, media coverage brought on by infected slaughterhouses has inspired calls for reforms. While activists like Schmidt are happy about this, they also think it’s important to understand that the problem is more fundamental.
“People don’t realise that workers’ rights have been stripped away for years by neoliberal politicians. They turn a blind eye,” he said. “People think this stuff doesn’t happen in Europe. They think, ‘Oh, Germany, this workers’ paradise.’ It’s important to understand that these issues, these awful conditions for migrant workers, were not caused by the virus, they were revealed by the virus.”
An uncertain future
With economies starting to reopen across Europe, some migrant workers have been able to return to work.
With financial help from friends and family, Christina was able to hold out long enough for the lockdown in the Netherlands to be lifted. But there’s still uncertainty among some migrants about what’s to come. She’s afraid of what looms on the horizon if the virus returns in the autumn and countries decide to go back into lockdown.
“I realised how easy things can fall apart,” she said. “Usually I know that I can always find a job doing something, but not if things close down again. I’m trying to save up more money now. I hope it will be enough”
*Name was changed to protect her identity.