COVID-19 and Crisis in Western Agriculture
By Alex Moldovan
The first few months of the pandemic has intensified structural contradictions in the North American and Western European political economies. The blows that COVID-19 is dealing to agricultural production in the West are concerning because by chocking the flow of migrant workers, food production is then slowed. The coronavirus pandemic has, in no small way, brought about a crisis in capitalist agriculture in the West.
Since the beginning of the lockdowns in March 2020, the responses of governments in North America and Western Europe revealed two priorities when it came to agriculture: cushion the agribusiness monopolies and ensure that the import of migrant labour continues despite lockdowns. The colonial systems of wage work that drives western agriculture are as fragile as it has ever been.
The Crisis in Agriculture Before COVID-19
Before COVID-19, agricultural sectors in these regions were characterized by a few agribusiness monopolies. Companies like ADM, Groupe Bigard and Cargill controlled key supply chains, land, packaging, research, and development and distribution. Backed by government, agribusiness monopolies have created an economic ecosystem that drives their profits. But that also squeezes out small farmers, imports precarious farmworkers, and subjects them to cruel working conditions with little oversight.
Under normal circumstances, the pressure to maximize profits and a refusal of the big employers to increase wages has resulted in the normalization of Western farms employing imported migrant workers. Over the past few decades, countries like France and Canada have developed programs to organize the large-scale human trafficking of workers from countries in their immediate peripheries into low-paying and highly precarious work for multimillion dollar agricultural companies.
By the numbers, Germany sees up to 300,000 migrant farmworkers enter to legally work every year, mainly from Bulgaria and Romania. In France that number is 270,000. Canada admits 65,000 farmworkers from countries as diverse as Jamaica and the Philippines. The United States has 55,000 officially recorded migrant farmworkers registered in guest worker programs. But there are also up to 1.5 million unregistered migrant farmworkers.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, food worker safety and hygiene were precarious. In 2011, Farmworker Justice, a US-based NGO, reported that “workers frequently describe their housing as dirty, cramped, unsanitary, or pest-ridden—and sometimes all of the above.” In the United States, farmworkers are the only group of labourers that do not have to be legally notified of the adverse health effects of the chemicals that they work with. Yet this sector is expected to comply with workplace hygiene regulations that change weekly.
Decades of government clawbacks to farm inspections have created a tendency for health, safety and hygiene in these workspaces to deteriorate—not improve. The legal regime designed to import guestworkers is built on the silence of the worker and the submission of the home country. Speaking about abuses brings reprisals like dismissal or deportation. The countries of origin have been so brutalized by the international system that compliance with the migrant worker regime is something close to mandatory. COVID-19 has turned these thousands of small cuts into gaping wounds.
The Response: a Band-Aid on a Machete Wound
Governments were quick to hand out cheap credit to farmers to overcome immediate financial constrains caused by lockdowns. For instance, Canada announced a C$5 billion credit line to farmers. Germany granted their farmers unlimited credit. Of course, this is already on top of existing subsidy regimes where farmers in the European Union, for example, receive C$65 billion per year.
At first ,many policy makers dropped the ball in ensuring migration for farm work continued. Germany banned the entry of migrant farmworkers on March 25 in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Days later, authorities overturned the ban after agribusiness began warning of shortages. Additionally, migrant farmworkers entering countries as diverse as Canada and Germany were asked to sign wavers exempting their home countries from costs, damages and losses associated with leaving under lockdown orders. In weeks the response went from “lock the gates” to doubling down on alienating the legal rights of financially-desperate labourers.
The initial response of the British government was to cooperate with the landlords’ association to build a “Land Army” of British citizens to “feed the nation”. Unsurprisingly, the attempt was a dramatic failure. Out of a total of 90,000 available positions, only 4,000 people were interviewed. This prompted agricultural companies to airlift workers from Eastern Europe. Similar airlifts of thousands have also happened in Germany.
Anthony Gardiner, an executive at G-Growers, justified the decision for the airlift because the migrant farmworkers were needed to bring British workers “up to speed” on “food and hygiene standards”. Migrant farmworkers are essential enough for agribusiness executives because they can train new workers on hygiene regulations that are changing by-the-minute. Yet migrant workers are expendable enough to pack into a plane for transport in direct violation of the World Health Organisation’s emphasis on social distancing.
For some reason the Canadian Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau announced a C$50 million bailout for farmers who are eligible to receive C$1,500 per migrant worker to adapt food production to new social distancing guidelines. Later the same day, the Toronto Star reported that workers were not informed of the 14-day mandatory quarantine period required for travellers. They were told by their employers (who certainly qualify for the bailout) to begin work immediately.
There are no guarantees that major food producers are implementing new social distancing standards. In late March, the Canadian government was struggling to get inspectors out of retirement to address staffing shortages in food inspection. Weeks later, a Cargill facility in southern Alberta—staffed mainly by migrant workers—was linked to an outbreak of over 500 COVID-19 cases, after a health and safety inspection was done over video.
In June, similar video inspections on farms in Ontario have missed outbreaks causing the deaths of at least three migrant farmworkers. COVID-19 has spread like wildfire among migrant farmworkers in Canada to such an extent that Mexico threatened to stop sending workers unless new regulations were put into place. The Romanian government negotiated similar arrangements with the German government after an outbreak at a meat plant.
First, Mexico and Romania actually negotiated exemptions for workers to leave. Then after outbreaks, they moved for incremental reforms backed by nice promises. One Romanian legislator eloquently likened the status of her country to a “colony” where the government is more concerned with staffing “plantations” than getting Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The scars of COVID-19 begin with punctures in the countryside of capitalism’s core but are carved out across the world.
Standing Idle or Striking Back?
Governments over the West are more concerned with pumping cash into agribusinesses and carrying out inspections on WhatsApp than about the lives of the people who make food production run. Governments of the centre or right are far from ditching migrant farmworker programs. It is unlikely that, despite farmworker deaths, they will move towards any meaningful changes. The political right has a solution: mass deportation and local employment. Although this may seem about as realistic as a mass plague shutting down society did in 2018, it remains a coherent position that has a certain traction in society.
Faced with crisis in the largest human trafficking system in the West since the slave trade, decent working people, students, trade unionists and left political organizations are faced with some serious questions: is this status quo tenable? How can we begin to dismantle this political economy of subjugation and replace it with one of justice?
The state of affairs where the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) lets out a squeak once and a while about injustice is no longer tenable given the scale of the crisis produced by COVID-19. In places like Italy where trade unions have put down serious resources to organize migrants on the basis of equal rights, we’ve witnessed strikes against narrow reforms to expand promises of residency. In places like Canada where trade union leaders expect underfunded left-liberal coalitions like Migrant Workers Alliance for Change to do the hard work of organizing, promises of residency aren’t even on the table.
The blame for the current exposure facing many migrant farmworkers does not just rest on decades of government collusion with agricultural robber barons in the pursuit of profit. The conditions for these varied systems of transnational bondage to grow in a soil fertilized by decomposed left politics.
The status quo of left and trade union leaders with their hands in their pockets and some nice words on offer is no longer tenable. To dismantle these neo-colonial systems of farm work that feed only the profits of financiers and landowners must be central to a militant left politic. It is imperative that trade unions and left parties, with their massive resources, unionize agribusinesses and connect the struggles of farmworkers to other sectors of workers left behind by the crisis. The pathway to racial justice in the West goes through broad and deep, organizing migrant farmworkers with a politics of “good enough to work, good enough to stay.”
Alex Moldovan is a PhD student in the Graduate Programme in Politics at York University. His research focuses on social movements, political economy and security. He is a proud trade unionist with CUPE 3903 and active with the Socialist Fightback Students at York University.