Non-EU Workers Remain a Vital Resource for European Agriculture

Politics - September 12, 2023

Between New Rules and Openings by the European Commission, Agricultural Workers from Other Continents Remain the Protagonists of Political Discussions

Agriculture has always been one of the fundamental economic sectors for any nation, providing food, raw materials and employment. In Europe, agricultural production is subjected to constant challenges, including climate change, fluctuations in raw material prices and the need to ensure food security for a constantly growing population and, in this context, non-EU agricultural workers have acquired an increasingly important role, becoming a vital resource for the European agricultural industry.

The European Union (EU) hosts a large population of non-EU agricultural workers from different parts of the world, including countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. These workers perform a variety of essential tasks within the agricultural sector, such as planting, harvesting, pruning and tending crops and their proverbial dedication to work has always had a significant impact on the production and competitiveness of the European agriculture. One of the main reasons why non-EU agricultural workers have become so indispensable is the lack of local manpower available to carry out these tasks due to urbanization and industrialization which have often led to a migration of rural populations to the cities, leaving gaps in the farming communities. Furthermore, some agricultural jobs require specific skills and knowledge that can only be acquired through direct experience in the field that non-EU workers often include in their professional experiences and, with these skills, contribute to maintaining agricultural productivity.

However, the presence of non-EU agricultural workers in the EU also raises complex issues, including workers’ rights, social protection and integration into the host society. It is crucial to ensure that these workers are treated fairly and with all the granted rights, with decent working conditions and adequate wages. Measures such as clear employment contracts, access to healthcare and inclusion in social security systems are essential to ensure the well-being of non-EU agricultural workers. Cultural integration is another important aspect when dealing with agricultural workers from other continents as they often find themselves far from their families and historical roots and can face challenges in trying to adapt to new environments. Local communities and organizations can play a crucial role in helping these workers feel welcomed and supported. Initiatives such as language courses, orientation programs and cultural events can help foster integration and create positive links between the different communities involved.

EU immigration and seasonal work policy plays a key role in regulating non-EU agricultural workers. Temporary work programs and special visas allow workers to enter the EU for limited periods in order to meet the seasonal needs of agriculture but, nevertheless, it is important to ensure that these policies are balanced and do not lead to abuse, or exclusion of workers as already happened in the past. Thorough supervision, together with adequate control mechanisms, can help prevent illegal or unfair employment practices.

Interestingly, some European countries have taken different approaches to hiring non-EU agricultural workers, and while some nations prefer to hire seasonal workers only when there is a local labour shortage, other countries have created more structured schemes to allow entry and work, on a regular basis. Addressing labour rights, social protection and inclusion challenges will be crucial to ensure a fair and sustainable working environment. With well-designed policies and a joint commitment by institutions and civil society, it is possible to maximize the benefits deriving from the presence of non-EU agricultural workers, creating a balance between the needs of agriculture and fundamental human rights. As long as there are no Community programs that can bring young Europeans closer to agricultural work, professional support from non-EU citizens remains indispensable.

Italy, in the face of the emergency of clandestine landings, is in the front line for a serious policy of regularisation of flows for non-EU citizens who wish to work in the agricultural sector, whether on a seasonal or long-term basis. This is why it is working for the reactivation of a policy of controlled flows that allows both contractual and legal regularisation of those who request entry for these reasons.