Approaching the Schaefer fruit farm in the hills of the Rhineland, in western Germany, where Mitache worked, visitors can recognize the housing containers in front of the warehouse from afar. A few workers sit in the sun. In one corner of the large warehouse, you can see the two-story residential sheds made of particle board. Photos from the interior show a claustrophobic room with 10 well-made beds.
In the trade press, fruit farmer Daniel Schaefer likes to convey the image that his business is a model farm. It’s part of the Landgard producers’ cooperative, one of the largest of its kind, with over 3,000 members and approximately 2 billion euros in revenue. In 2019 alone, the cooperative received more than 6 million euros in marketing aid from the EU. Schaefer’s farm also benefited from this.
According to Schaefer, everything is done correctly on his farm. And in a written statement, the operation rejected most of the allegations against it. It claims the hygiene rules were strictly adhered to, and that the farm provided and paid for several meals daily with “a different meat every day.” It claims ID cards were returned after two days at the latest, that everyone was given an employment contract and that they were to be reimbursed for flight costs if they fulfilled the contract.
It also argues that the “performance-related minimum hourly wage” even allowed workers to earn more than what they are legally entitled to, and that the group connected to George Mitache had been “unmotivated.” It says that, as an employer, one “doesn’t have to put up with everything either.” It also claims that the housing as well as the company’s hygiene compliance had been monitored by the authorities, adding that there had been no complaints.
The answers from the authorities in the Ahrweiler district paint a different picture – and also show how indulgent the auditors have been. As early as the beginning of April, an inspection by the district found that COVID-19 protection measures were not being maintained and that there was no disinfectant in kitchens and bathrooms. Schaefer made improvements.
The building supervisory authority objected that nobody should have been housed in the upper floor shed, where Mitache slept, because there was no building permit for it. The Schaefer operation was allowed to carry on anyway. The district argues that it could no longer immediately ban the company from using the wooden shed after the company committed itself to permanently opening main doors to let in air and began implementing further fire-protection measures. The consensus was that the situation would be tolerated until the end of the season in September. And the occupancy of the rooms? The district officials said they could not check this themselves “in the absence of relevant regulations” in state law. They also argued that this responsibility lies with the state labor inspectorate, which was already looking into the issue, as the customs authorities also appeared to be doing.
Schaefer claims that the Romanians left voluntarily and signed letters of resignation.
Guia, the trade unionist, argues that it’s hard to imagine that people would voluntarily resign, only to stand on the street without anything. Now that organizations like the DGB trade union have set up contact points for migrant workers, an increasing number of similar cases have come to light. There have been repeated cases involving not only questionable housing conditions on farms that became COVID-19 hotspots, but also withheld wages and arbitrary wage deductions for things like internet access.
A Widespread Problem
Similar dubious working conditions prompted 150 harvest workers to protest at an asparagus farm in Bornheim, near Bonn, in May. They had been ordered there despite the fact that the farm had declared bankruptcy in the spring. The public prosecutor’s office is investigating the business for tax evasion and social security fraud. The owners, who could not be reached for comment, apparently spent millions on expensive vintage cars.
Even organic food producers don’t necessarily treat their seasonal workers any better, as demonstrated by the Spanish company Berrynest. In Huelva, in the extreme southwest of Spain, the company grows blueberries, raspberries and strawberries which it sells under the brand name Bionest. They argue that this takes place strictly according to ecological criteria. Berrynest, one of the largest exporters of organic berries in Europe, also supplies German supermarkets.
Hueva is the Continent’s orchard – a sea of plastic tarps stretching to the horizon. One-third of all European strawberries are grown here before getting loaded into trucks and shipped northwards. The Spanish call the berries “el oro rojo,” the red gold.
Berrynest did brisk business during the pandemic. While the vast majority of Spaniards were barely allowed to leave their homes for weeks, the harvest workers continued to toil in the fields. The strawberries had to be collected before they rotted. Suddenly, the invisible migrants had become essential workers.
Recently, the Berrynest website posted a thank you to the workers. “Without you, all of this would have been impossible,” it states. It claims that everything is being done to protect the workers and keep production going. A promotional video shows horses galloping across fields, relaxed workers strolling across a meadow. The film claims that the workers and their families are offered a bright future.
But Ahmed Farlui says that’s all a lie. The 42-year-old has been working in the fields of Huelva for years. He doesn’t want to give his real name out of fear the farmers might seek to retaliate. Farlui is one of four harvest workers DER SPIEGEL has interviewed about work at Berrynest. The men and women worked there for 42 euros, gross, per day, which is below the minimum wage of 48.54 euros for seasonal workers in Spain. Despite the danger of infection, he says, they worked without masks or disinfectants, and couldn’t even wash their hands regularly.