Germany's Spargelzeit season attracts thousands of Polish and Romanian workers (Photo: rainy city)
As summer ends, so does the harvest season.
In Romania, farmers have been bustling, presenting ripe strawberries, cherries, and crisp lettuce in markets spread across towns and cities.
In Germany, the beloved asparagus season “Spargelzeit” has ended. Harvesting asparagus and berries by hand requires both skill and endurance.
The harvesters are paid per quantity and if the quality of the harvested products is inferior, they receive less money.
Brandenburg — the region next to the German capital — is famous for its asparagus. Its sandy soil is perfect for growing asparagus but makes harvesting very hard.
In the summertime, the fields turn into a desert-like scene and the workers spend hours bent over cutting the asparagus spears.
Many will later pay with their health because the hours in the sun without any form of protection increases their risk of skin cancer.
Who is willing to take this tough job? Last summer, of the 303,867 people in Germany’s agricultural sector, 120,249 were foreigners predominantly from Romania and Poland.
Some 46 percent of these non-German seasonal workers were employed as short-term workers, which means that their employers do not pay social security contributions.
The concept of short-term work goes back to the old days when pupils or retirees would help during the harvesting season.
For 70 days, workers can be employed in the agricultural sector without social insurance.
However, this is only legal, if the short-term employment constitutes a supplementary income and the employee has another main and insurable occupation.
But this is not the case for many seasonal workers.
The “fair agricultural work” initiative (Faire Landarbeit) is a coalition of trade unions and church organisations that provide information and legal assistance to seasonal workers from the EU and third countries.
Multiple times during the harvesting season they hand out leaflets about German labour law in several languages and talk to the workers.
Numerous workers reveal to them that they rely solely on these seasonal jobs.
Last autumn, Marina S. encountered challenges when she was lacking information for her tax declaration in Romania.
She and her husband Andrei S., both of whom had worked on a German farm for three consecutive years, were denied information on their social rights by their employer.
Their contracts had been limited to two weeks, several times in a row. Despite being advised to lodge an official complaint, Marina hesitated, fearing repercussions on future employment opportunities.
The German government brought forward some improvements for seasonal workers. For example, employers have to report that their workers have health insurance.
However, many employers use private group health insurance schemes that do not cover all illnesses and treatments. In addition, not all employers fulfil their obligations.
Mihail P., after suffering a dental emergency, was left with an exorbitant hospital bill and no assistance from his employer or German authorities on insurance coverage.
Sign up for EUobserver’s daily newsletter
All the stories we publish, sent at 7.30 AM.
Neither his employer nor the German authorities helped him clarify his situation. He does not have a job in Romania and will now have to spend his whole income on his medical treatment.
This is not a German problem. It is a European problem.
The EU’s open labour market offers many benefits, especially for countries like Germany which need workers.
However, sending countries like Romania and especially mobile workers have been losing out for far too long.
If they are no longer able to cut asparagus or pick berries — who pays for their pensions or unemployment benefits? Many work extensively in Germany without any social insurance.
This neglect of EU citizens’ rights threatens the European ethos of equal treatment and freedom of movement.
The EU regulation for the coordination of social security systems is a law designed to prevent such situations but it urgently needs updating.
The European Parliament and the Council have been negotiating a revision of the regulation for years and time is running out.
After a period of slow progress in the negotiations between the institutions, the Spanish presidency of the EU Council has declared this reform one of their priorities.
It remains to be seen though, whether the Council can overcome its difficulties and finally find a common position internally. Some member states profiting from the situation seem to intentionally delay further progress on this important file.
The negotiators are faced with a few remaining open questions, namely the principle of prior notification to ensure the provision of social security coverage for mobile workers and the question of which member state should be responsible for paying unemployment benefits of cross-border workers.
The European Parliament negotiation team agreed that digital solutions could on the one hand reduce the administrative burden of companies while allowing for effective controls to prevent fraud and exploitation.
Finding a solution here could finally deliver much-needed reforms. For the Parliament, the only solution that can be found is one that provides better protection for workers than before.
In addition, and as a second step, the member states as well as the Commission must guarantee to carry out the necessary controls to enforce the practical implementation of the law, together with a reinforced involvement of the European Labour Authority.
It will be vital to see whether the Spanish EU presidency can follow up on the good intentions.
The negotiation team of the European Parliament is still optimistic to find a compromise that works for all workers — especially the most vulnerable — and to prevent shameful practices as experienced by Marina and Mihail.
This would be a step towards an economy that works for all people — not for just some of them.