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July 2020, Volume 26, Number 3
After a two-month lockdown, European countries began to reopen their economies in May 2020. Governments required people to wear face masks in public and while working close together in factories, and conducted widespread testing to monitor the number of Covid-19 infections.
Agriculture was considered essential in all European countries, and governments made special arrangements to allow migrant workers from Eastern Europe move to Western Europe to fill seasonal jobs on farms. Italy employs 370,000 foreign seasonal workers; Germany 300,000; France 270,000; and the UK 60,000. Due to closed borders, farmers in some countries chartered planes to transport Romanian and other workers to their farms.
Governments tried to persuade local jobless workers to accept seasonal farm jobs. The results were mixed. Germany created a web site to link German workers with seasonal farm jobs. Workers could continue to receive 80 percent of their regular pay if their employers put them on Kurzarbeit or furlough. These workers could work up to 115 days in a seasonal farm job without paying social security taxes on the farm earnings. Most local workers did not start or stay in seasonal farm jobs.
The EU provided E59 billion to its 10 million farms in 2018, and some countries provide additional aid to farmers and food processing firms.
Britain. Farmers rely on migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania to fill 70,000 seasonal jobs, but travel restrictions in 2020 reduced the number of migrants. Leaders including Prince Charles urged jobless Britains to ?Pick for Britain? by applying for jobs that pay about $125 a day, and added that the UK needed ?pickers who are stickers.? Many jobless British residents applied for farm jobs, leading to predictions that a third of seasonal jobs in 2020 could be filled by Britons.
One woman reported picking 100 pounds of strawberries an hour. US berries are picked into ten-pound flats for $1.80 each, suggesting earning the equivalent of $18 an hour. Britain?s minimum wage is ?8.72 or $11 an hour; Hall Hunter in Surrey reported that its strawberry pickers averaged ?414 or $520 a week.
British labor recruiter Concordia said that only 10 percent of the 1,000 British workers who responded to the ?Pick for Britain? campaign in April 2020 went to work on farms; the others cited the short duration of the job, difficulties getting from their homes to farms with jobs, and the need to care for children. Many British farmers said they preferred experienced Romanians to first-time British farm workers.
France. France imposed a severe 55-day lockdown after the coronavirus spread in February 2020, in part due to a shortage of masks and tests. France has one of the world?s largest and most centralized governments and a health care system that failed to deal effectively with the virus.
One result of France having three times more deaths from Covid-19 than Germany was soul-searching about why the French government and health care system did not perform better. One conclusion: the centralized French government was too slow to adapt to a rapidly changing virus threat.
President Emmanuel Macron in July 2020 changed prime ministers and restarted efforts to revise pensions systems that were put on hold by Covid-19. Unions oppose the proposed changes, which would merge the country?s 42 pension systems into one and base pension benefits on points earned while working, and shut down public transit in protest in December 2019 and January 20.
Germany. Covid-19 broke out in several meatpacking plants. Meatpacking employs over 90,000 workers, including a third who are migrants from Eastern European countries such as Romania. Most migrants are hired via staffing agencies that bring migrants into Germany.
A quarter of the workers at a T?nnies pork plant near Gutersl?h that processes 17,000 hogs a day tested positive for Covid in June 2020, leading to the closure of the plant and putting the mostly Romanian workers in quarantine. T?nnies processes 30 percent of Germany?s pork at a cost of less than $7 per pig, pre-packaging meat for discount and other supermarket chains.
The government and meat buyers insisted that the Covid outbreak required a closer look at labor standards in meatpacking. Beginning in January 2021, all employees of meatpacking plants must be hired directly.
The German government was widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, using science to guide reopening in May 2020. The Alternative for Germany, the largest opposition party in Parliament, used protests against the lockdown to question the government?s competence, noting high unemployment and half-empty hospitals. The AfD surged to popularity in the former East German states after Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed a million Syrians and other refugees to move to Germany in 2015.
Germany assumed the six-month EU Presidency July 1, 2020, and laid out plans to create asylum centers at EU external borders to triage asylum applicants. Those with no claim to refugee status would be returned immediately, while those with a clear need for protection would be admitted and divided among EU countries. Asylum applicants whose cases require judges to make decisions would be held in reception centers until decisions are made.
Greece. Southern European countries such as Greece and Portugal are very dependent on travel and tourism for 20 to 25 percent of their jobs. Greece was emerging from the Euro crisis of 2010-16 just as the pandemic shut down travel and pushed Greece and other Southern European countries into recession.
Italy. Italy, the EU country most affected by the coronavirus, expects its economy to shrink by 10 percent in 2020 and for government debt to rise to 160 percent of GDP. Richer northern Italy was most affected by the virus in March and April, but the Covid-19 soon shifted to southern Italy, where 20 million people live in six regions and two islands. Many workers in southern Italy are employed in the informal economy and are not eligible for unemployment insurance and other safety net benefits, although the poorest southern Italians can receive a monthly basic income support.
Almost a quarter of Italians are 65 or older; the average age of Italians who died of Covid-19 was 80.
A million people are employed in Italian agriculture, and most farmers rely on Eastern Europeans to fill seasonal jobs. In 2020, some 150,000 Eastern European migrants could not travel to Italy to fill farm jobs, prompting efforts to attract jobless Italians into farm work. Some farmers reported that five or more Italians applied for each seasonal job available, but that many who started to do farm work soon quit.
A $1.1 billion support package proposed in May 2020 included legalization for unauthorized farm workers, which critics said would not add to the seasonal farm workforce because workers legalized were already in Italy.
Sweden. Sweden was the great exception among industrial countries during the Covid-19 pandemic, keeping elementary schools, workplace, and restaurants open and asking residents to voluntarily practice social distancing. By remaining open, Sweden kept most workers employed and developed herd immunity sooner, the point where 60 percent of residents recovered from Covid-19.
Is the Swedish approach a model for future pandemics? Many people say yes, noting that Swedes have high levels of trust in their governments and fellow citizens that helped them to avoid spreading the virus. The government acknowledged that it was too slow to require PPE in nursing homes, and has promised to do more to protect immigrants who live in crowded housing and work in service jobs.
Russia. There were about five million migrant workers from ex-USSR republics in Russia in spring 2020, and many lost their jobs as businesses closed. However, few could return to countries such as Uzbekistan because all of the previous 15 daily flights were cancelled. There were long waiting list for the few charters.
After 2005, Russia encouraged ethnic Russians in the ex-USSR republics to return, and many did. The return of ethnic Russians was followed by non-ethnic Russian migrants who moved from the poorer ex-USSR republics to Moscow, where wages of $600 a month are two or three times what they could earn at home. Some Uzbeks and other Central Asians are moving to other countries to work such as South Korea.
Gulf. Many of the migrant workers in the oil-rich Gulf states lost their jobs in spring 2020, prompting sending-country governments such as India to repatriate 200,000 migrant workers via ship and plane in June. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Air India returned 170,000 Indians from Kuwait.
There have been many reports of abuse of migrant workers in Middle Eastern countries, especially domestic workers, and there were more in spring and summer 2020 as some employers tightened rules for their domestic helpers, refusing to allow them to leave the house for fear of returning with the virus. .
The ILO estimates there are at least five million domestic workers in Middle Eastern countries, most of whom are recruited by employment agencies to work for citizens who become their sponsors while abroad. Sponsors are employers as well as providers of food and housing, making workers very dependent on them. If workers get sick or fired, their employers sometimes return them to the recruiting agency?s hostel to recover or be deported.
The Philippines requires that its citizens who work as domestic workers earn at least $400 a month abroad; Kuwait?s minimum wage for domestic workers is $195 a month.
Gulf oil exporters depend on a high price for oil and migrant workers to keep their economies going. The plunge in oil prices in spring 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdowns reduced economic activity, raising questions about dependence on migrant workers to fill most private sector jobs.
Two-thirds of the citizens of Gulf oil exporters work for the government, often in make-work jobs. More Gulf-country citizens are taking private jobs as government spending shrinks, and some criticized the visa brokers who bring migrants into Gulf countries and the crowded housing offered to migrants.
China. China?s $14 trillion economy shrank in 2020 for the first time in 50 years, ending an unprecedented growth wave that began in 1976. China was locked down for most of February 2020 in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus, but reopened in April 2020.
China rejected calls for outside investigations of the origins of the virus in Wuhan, and some countries discussed suing the Chinese government for damage caused by the virus. The Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 led to the destruction of foreign property in China and the payment of reparations to eight countries.
As a result of the virus and the Chinese lockdown, many firms that include China in their supply chains are rethinking their dependence on the country that has become the world?s factory. There was discussion of efficiency versus resiliency in supply chains. Should firms source products in China because it is the lowest-cost supplier, or keep production at home to guarantee supplies in emergencies?
Singapore. The city-state of Singapore was widely praised for its quick and effective response to the coronavirus in February-March 2020. However, in April 2020 there were more than 1,000 new cases a day, 90 percent migrant workers who live in crowded dorms and work on construction sites and in services. Over 20 percent of Singapore?s 5.7 million residents are foreign workers.
The government halted work on construction sites, idling 180,000 migrant construction workers. Each worker must have 48 square feet of space in dorms, most of which have 20 workers in bunk beds in rooms that are 25 by 40 feet. Bangladeshis and Indians were those most likely to contract the virus.
Africa. Employment in agriculture falls as per capita incomes rise. In sub-Saharan Africa, the share of workers employed in agriculture fell from 66 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2015. Increasingly, rural Africans are spending more time in nonfarm activities, such as transporting or selling goods, so that even rural Africans buy half of their food.
African countries are unlikely to be able to imitate Asian economic successes by beginning with labor-intensive manufacturing and climbing the manufacturing ladder from garments to electronics. Instead, many are trying to add value to the farm commodities that they export, such as slicing and packing fresh fruit in ready-to-eat containers.