Sanjay, a gym-rat college student, thought farm labour work was easy till he tried it. He pulled the tomatoes so hard, he damaged the plant. Carrots he plucked so softly it wouldn’t come out. Half of all potatoes he dug, had tool injuries. In a week Sanjay developed shoulder and backaches.
Sanjay was doing work mostly done by migrant labourers, the lot we see gathered early mornings in different unofficially designated spots in cities or towns. There, potential employees ask about experience and based on that take them to work in fields, construction, factories, mines etc. Over time, many develop expertise.
These – at least 244 million migrant labourers across the world – make the bottom pyramid of global labour and the bulk of a nation’s shadow economy. Without basic rights or decent pay, they ensure the supply of the most important ingredients that make up human life – food, shelter, clothing. Their low-cost expertise keeps inflation in check by ensuring the affordability of goods and services. They are also the base upon which the rich build their empires.
Yet, like sand on a river bed, theirs is a constantly shifting group (a worker who has picked peaches in France, picks strawberries and olives in Spain, returns to pick grapes in France) that transcends national borders in smaller European nations or Africa; and state borders in big countries like USA, India and China. President Donald Trump might want to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants out, but they are the ones that pick the greens and feed the meat found in his favourite American burgers.
In south-east Ireland, sturdy Slovaks pick strawberries. In Iran Afghan refugees working illegally in construction. The plight of a ‘legal’ Palestinian labourer in an Israeli farm is little different from the ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi migrant toiling for a pittance in the field of a local Assamese who protests on the street to throw him out. The grapes in your favourite French wine is picked by 100,000 migrant workers from the rest of Europe.
Internal migration of labourers in a big country is no different. In India 120 million people are estimated to migrate seasonally from rural to urban labour markets, industries and farms. Regions like UP and Bihar have been doing this since independence. But new corridors of manual labour like Odisha, MP, Rajasthan and the NorthEast have also opened up in the last two decades. These migrants work in construction, domestic work, textiles, brick kiln, mines, agriculture etc.
The map of labour migrating across the world is a complex crisscross of state, national and continental borders and one that changes by the day. Today, coronavirus has laid waste this essential migration map and along with it, most of what was growing in fields they sowed, tilled and harvested.
Construction once shut, can pick up in a redoubled way later. So can most labour-intensive activities, except farming. The crisis of farm labour could starve the world and hence, needs urgent redressal.
As spring turns to summer, salads in Germany await the 300,000 seasonal workers from across Europe. France needs 200,000 while the standing crops in Italy are dependant on up to 300,000 migrant labourers, some from as far away as India. Across Asia, crops are rotting in fields with few hands to harvest them.
Western Europe is dependent on migrant labour from Eastern Europe. Due to COVID-19 strict border restrictions not only prevent migrant travel, many are afraid they’d be stuck like the 7,000 Moroccan workers stuck in the Andalusian province of Huelva in Spain. EU telling member countries that farm labourers are essential workers and hence their movements should not be restricted, hasn’t helped.
The problem is documentation. What document could certify a labourer’s ability to pick asparagus with precision – a highly delicate work. Many labourers in India are illiterate. In Europe, with most not having requisite documents, police stop and harass them when they have to cross multiple countries to reach their destination. E.g. a Romanian labourer needing to go to France passes through borders of five countries, many of which are closed. Same is the problem with migration inside Africa with most countries sealing borders.
Europe is so desperate, they launched national campaigns to call students and newly unemployed to become farm labourers. Germany launched ‘The Land Helps’ campaign. Italy’s agriculture minister has asked unemployed to help farmers. France’s agriculture minister Didier Guillaume issued a rallying cry to what he called France’s ‘shadow army’ of workers from cities saying, “I tell them: join the great army of French agriculture.”
But the effectiveness of these measures can be gauged from UK’s example where 98% of fruit pickers are foreign nationals. Its national campaign to fill 90,000 positions, could gather only 10,000 who’re complaining about low pay and bad work conditions.
UK thus had no option but to fly in Bulgarians and Romanian labourers to Essex and Midlands. Germany flew in migrants from Romania in chartered flights. Austria flew hundreds of Romanian care workers into their country. A plane load of doctors and nurses from India left for UAE.
USA – even as President Trump hypocritically rants against Mexicans – has kept its southern border open to quietly allow Mexican ‘guest workers’ i.e. H-2A visa holding agricultural workers. The country would go hungry without these workers to harvest American fields. In fact, their embassies across the world are prioritising H-2A visas considering its importance to US economy and food security. Last year 237,000 H-2A visas were availed of which 90% were from Mexico.
Repurposing labourers is often counterproductive as new workers face the sort of problems Sanjay did at the beginning of this article. Sowing, tilling or harvesting different type of crops require different expertise which repurposed labourers would lack.
The problems migrant labourers face is not just of invisibility and exploitation. Rather these are caused by the apathy of the middle and upper classes. We don’t care that the tea worker of Assam lives in sub-human conditions as long as we can get our kilogram of tea ten rupees cheaper. A strawberry lover in Spain does not care that the price some Moroccan women pay while picking his cheap, juicy strawberries delicately, is rape and abuse.
People across the world not only have no clue about these but have consciously refused to acknowledge the realities of low-pay, exploitative manual labour. Blood-diamond is a good topic to make a Hollywood film. Would you say the same for ‘blood-carrots’, ‘tears-asparagus’ or ‘rape-strawberries’?
Middle and upper-class indifference, apathy and at times antipathy have made migrant workers disposable despite their large numbers and the indispensability of their labour. They often work without basic rights or pay. Even now, labourers being flown through Europe, have been ferried without COVID-19 safety protocols. Most aren’t even being offered pay for the forced 14-day quarantine both way, neither would they get paid medical if they fell sick.
Among all nations of the world, India seems to have done the worst. While the world ferries labourers back and forth based on their nation's needs, governments here seem to have so little clue about their own necessities, that forget arranging for trains and buses (now remedied), we stopped them even from walking hundreds of miles home. And the worst offender is the state of Uttar Pradesh that has suspended for 3 years almost all labour laws that provided basic protection. Other states could soon follow this lead.
Therein lies the sad irony of modern societies: like the guy who cuts the branch he’s sitting on, the very labour that capitalism stands upon is the one it attempts to crush the most, something that COVID-19 has exposed. This pandemic asks us to correct our past mistakes when it comes to migrant labour. Yet, as the UP example shows, it seems likely that the opposite would happen.
What we perhaps need is what Sanjay felt. If all city folks spent a week farming or doing manual labour, we’ll at least be half-aware of all the blood, sweat and tears that go into keeping us alive. Perhaps that would make us realise that the true map of the world, is neither the political nor physical, but one drawn and redrawn by migrants through the millennia.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)