The agri-food sector and Covid-19: from the current situation to future prospects for workers' health

ICRA Europe, in cooperation with EZA and with the financial support of the EU, organised a seminar on “The agri-food sector and Covid-19: from the current situation to future prospects for workers' health” from December 3rd to the 5th, 2021 in Rome. With its topic, this tied in with the event held in 2021, which took place under the motto "Protection and safety at work" and which was also dedicated to the food sector.

The focus of the individual presentations and the subsequent discussions in the plenum was on the recovery and possible consolidation of an economic sector whose efficiency must be based on the health of all employees, whose everyday and dignified work, fairly paid, makes a direct and indirect contribution to this. Particular emphasis was placed on the importance of social dialogue between all parties concerned. An important prerequisite is a greater willingness to engage in dialogue on the part of those involved, also thanks to a strengthened relationship of trust between the players in production, processing, and sales.

The consequences of the pandemic - as was made clear at the event - are not limited to the health aspect; Rather, the living conditions of the people should also be considered, since economic, social and cultural inequalities have increased. There are also psychological problems that have arisen through the pandemic, although little is said about them. The need to ensure dignified work and fair pay within a secure and enduring working relationship is becoming increasingly apparent.

In this context, the growing uneasiness among day labourers was pointed out, whose daily working hours are getting longer and longer without being paid more as a result, even quite the opposite. The working conditions of employees at all levels of the value chain must be examined. The consumer can only make a well-informed choice if he knows not only the origin of the products, but also the treatment of the workers who deal with them. Day labourers are often undocumented immigrants who come from different countries and are recruited for seasonal work. They are considered invisible, and they do not enjoy the protection of the institutional bodies.

The new working models that have emerged because of the pandemic were also analysed and evaluated. One such working model is smart working, which is not suitable for a purely agricultural sector, but is important for working conditions in other sectors. People no longer must commute to work, at the same time they are required to adapt mentally, and care must be taken not to affect the private lives of workers. In order to counter this danger, a clear separation is required so that the health of the employees is preserved and recovery is possible.

Regarding the safety of workers and the occurrence of occupational diseases, it became clear that there are subjective and objective risk factors in the field of agriculture. The role of the union is to promote education and training to prevent accidents affecting agricultural workers. Unfortunately, there is not as yet a strong awareness of this at European level; creating this must become a task of the European social dialogue.

The pandemic, the seminar emphasised, has made us realise two things: the importance of the food sector and the need for recognition of those working in this sector. Regarding the second aspect, the work of the trade unions is of immense importance. In certain countries, such as Bulgaria, negotiations have taken place by unions, with the result that a minimum wage has been set for workers.