The Human Cost of Fresh Food: Romanian Workers and Germany’s Food Supply Chains

Valer Simion Cosma, Cornel Ban, Daniela Gabor

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Fresh food supply chains in Europe’s transnational agribusinesses depend on cheap, non-unionised, and privately managed labour from low-wage eastern European countries. The costs versus benefits of this phenomenon are under-studied. By examining seasonal farm migration from Romania to Germany, we argue that the Covid-19 pandemic is, for farmworkers, a Janus-faced event. On the one hand, it has worsened the precarity of migrant farmworkers. Changes in the German state’s pay legislation that excluded workers from social benefits, and the reluctance of the German state to enforce labour legislation to the full in the early stages of the pandemic sharpened what we have termed the structural disempowerment of migrant farmworkers. Romanian seasonal workers have had little choice but to implicitly subsidise the costs of German farm products. At the same time, the health crisis has made their work visible and led to processes that challenge the perception of migrant workers as passive agents. In this regard we refer specifically to (i) the supportive media coverage in Romania, Germany, and beyond and (ii) the assertion of union-affiliated farm and abattoir labour activism in Germany. These planted seeds of contestation, and collective action against abuses sprang up in several farms. Combined with a flare-up of Covid-19 in German abattoirs in the summer of 2020, these campaigns for visibility and improved working conditions led the German government to alter legislation so as to better protect seasonal labour in the fresh vegetable and meat sectors. Going forward, the tension between these two opposing sociopolitical drivers may shape the governance of seasonal labour in Europe.
TidsskriftReview of Agrarian Studies
Udgave nummer2
Antal sider21
StatusUdgivet - 2021


  • Romania
  • Germany
  • Migrant agricultural workers
  • Seasonal agricultural work
  • Food supply chains
  • Covid-19
  • Labour unions