Illustration by Sabrina Dâscă

Managing Labour Hands: The Lived Experiences of Romanian Migrants in the Dutch Agro-Food Sector



In this article, I will examine working conditions, vulnerabilities, and social exclusion, experienced by Romanian migrants working in the Agro-Food sector in the Netherlands. Within the agricultural industry, there is a common presence of prime technical progress, a sector where immense resources go to innovations and research, but also a sector of evermore precarious forms of employment. Therefore, I argue rising debates about the success story of Dutch agriculture must relate to the work narratives of the seasonal and flexible migrant workers that sustain the sector. I will analyze the complicated dynamics of the production process in agricultural labour to discuss the role of transformations. To uncover trends in agrarian change, as well as forms of labour exploitation and resistance, I have used various qualitative research methods. My critique will focus on the job conditions and precarity in agriculture, with a particular emphasis on the economic pressure to keep labour costs low. By examining the changing ways in which exploitation in agriculture influences the life narratives of Romanian migrants, I hope to provide insights that can guide more equitable and just practices in the future.

AnthroArt Podcast

Andreea Maria Ferent.


My name is Andreea Maria Ferent. I am a Ph.D. Researcher in Social
and Political Sciences at the European University Institute, with an MA in Advanced
Sociological Research and a background in Critical Agrarian and Environmental
Studies, as well as Sociology and Social Anthropology. I am interested in the topics of
Migration, Food Resilience, the Agro-food business, and Labour Process Theory

Sabrina Dâscă


Sabrina studies architecture at the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca, and in the time that remains, she concentrates her interior universe into illustrations, with the purpose of inviting those that look at her drawings to take a further look at themselves.Androgynous characters, a limited color palette and fluid but raw lines complete her vision. Her personal work can be found on Instagram (@camdoare) and her personal portofolio can be found online

Nicoleta Finariu Andrei


Nicoleta is an Anthropology student at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work. She is interested in folklore and ethnomusicology.
She also has a particular interest in mental health issues and how people with a psychiatric condition live their lives and how they are understood by the “others”.

While the Dutch agricultural sector is a key part of the country’s economy and holds a leading position in agricultural export on the global market (Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality 2020), this success story in terms of competitiveness and accumulation draws from the precarity of the flexible and cheap workforce from Central and Eastern European countries (McGrath, S., 2013; Arnold, D., & Pickles, J., 2011; Mezzadri, A., 2008). One can identify the areas of strain in this work system by examining the harsh capitalist structure of food companies and production chains which prioritize retail and force farmers to accept low prices for their agricultural goods. Consequently, farmers resort to employing inexpensive labourers to make any profit due to the demand for low prices. At the same time, agricultural technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated, leading to significant changes in the sector. This trend is commonly known as “the internet of things in agriculture,” “digital farming,” or even “tsunami of technology.” These technological and industrial revolutions are transforming the industry (Perez, C., 2010; Schwab, K., 2016). To achieve economic growth, Dutch agriculture adheres to a stark trend of technological innovation (Ivosevic, P., 2018). At present, academic research institutions are heavily engaged with agricultural investigations (Wageningen University 2019) and the numbers for export of agricultural technologies as constructed into the agricultural GDP are publicized by the Dutch Government (Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality 2020). However, the realities of the migrant labourers in this sector do not match the success story of digitalization, as various reports warn us about the various vulnerabilities and precarious working conditions of those working in agriculture. 

The Dutch labour market opened officially for Central and Eastern European (CEE) migrants with the European Union enlargements in 2004 and 2007. However, studies show that the years before 2004 already registered an increase in the number of workers, dominantly the Polish group. In the case of the late ‘90s agricultural and horticultural sectors, reports show a trend of employing irregular CEE migrants for seasonal jobs (WRR 2001; Engbersen, G. et al., 2006) and starting with 2002 The Seasonal Work Project passed by the Dutch government relaxed the conditions for hiring migrants from Poland and other CEE countries (Broeders, D., & Engbersen, G 2007). As a result of a large number of Polish workers (particularly from the Polish-German border region) having a German passport and not requiring a work permit, the Polish group registered a number of 25,000 workers in the Dutch agricultural and horticultural sectors at the beginning of 2004. Whereas the year 2007 brings the lifting of all restrictions for hiring workers from Poland and new CEE countries, for the case of Bulgaria and Romania a period of transition is imposed in which they still need a temporary work permit. (Engbersen, G., Snel, E., & De Boom, J., 2010). The restrictions were lifted for Romanians and Bulgarians in 2014 and the numbers of workers from these countries started to increase more sharply. In 2017 the Central and Eastern European migrants represented a third of the immigrating population (CBS, 2017), with around five thousand more people from Poland at the beginning of 2018 and some five thousand more from Romania, Bulgaria and other East European Countries (CBS, 2019) and the highest percentage of them hired in the agricultural sector (ABU, 2018). In 2019 migrants with a Polish background remain the largest group, but there is also an important increase in the number of Romanian migrants. 

The increase in the share of Central Eastern European migrant workers in the Dutch Agro-Food sector was paralleled by governmental reports or trade unions’ responses regarding the exploitation of migrant CEE workers (e.g., FNV 2013, Mcgauran, K. et al., 2016; Suzanne, A., La, H. and International, S.,2019). The identified forms of exploitation involve the role of the recruitment agencies, which have been shown to generate bad working conditions for the workers through criminal acts of charging fees from workers or misleading them about documents, wages or the specifics of the job (Mcgauran, K. et al., 2016; Suzanne, A., La, H. and International, S., 2019). Other forms of precarity are given by some common exploitative practices, such as intimidation drawing from the fear of being dismissed, cases of sexual harassment, wage issues, bad housing conditions or unconditional flexibility – not allowing workers to go from the temporary status to a permanent contract (McGauran et al., 2016:16-36). Generally, the types of jobs that CEE migrants do in the Dutch Agro-Food sector are the ones that Dutch natives would not take, “labour intensive, poorly paid and dangerous 3D (dirty-dangerous-difficult) jobs.” (Cremers, J., 2016:22).  

Romanian migrants tend to concentrate on labour-intensive sectors, such as agriculture, where they often perform physically demanding tasks while the Dutch occupy higher positions. This can result in lower social status for Romanians in the labour market. This generates an atmosphere of classism in the society, where, despite the vital importance of migrant labour, prejudice and injustice against Romanian workers hinder the process of social integration. To understand the concept of precarity, it is essential to consider its internal elements and functioning in every case, rather than relying on external schemes existent in the literature. Although there is a general understanding of precarity, it still requires explanation in each individual case. Furthermore, thinking about migration in the same way, we must consider it as a spectrum. So, between human trafficking and “good” migration, variances and specific situations need to be separated. Far from a black-and-white situation, the findings reflect a continuum of dependency and precarity mechanisms that increase dependency on employers, such as mediation, housing, job contracts, or social integration. All the above constitute factors that can further impact the way in which technology influences the workers by revealing an already precarious position, harsh conditions, and overall fragmentation of workers, as will be shown below.

For the dimension of precarity, the qualitative interviews I have done during 2019-2020 with migrant workers, agencies, and growers, follow closely the same situations already visible in the literature. The statements of the workers signal exploitative ways of the recruiting agencies that straighten the argument that they are generative of bad working conditions: “We lived 10 persons in a house with 3 rooms” (November 2019 interview; male respondent; 22). The interviews showcase recruiting agencies charging very high fees for housing and travelling costs or through questionable parts of the contracts. In most cases, the contracts were not translated into Romanian, and in some cases, people received them only in digital form: During a November 2019 interview, a 27-year-old male respondent shared that they were instructed to wait three months before completing necessary paperwork. As a result, they had to keep their garbage in the basement since they did not have the required card to have it collected. This was due to not having the necessary documents.

More so, one case showed a recruitment agency charging a part of the daily salary of the workers through means of intimidation and threats of losing their jobs. This was not charged as a penalty, but more in the form of a payment for mediation. Another element is the mystification played by the same middlemen about salaries, legal documents, contracts, working conditions and the attributes of the job. The respondents stress the abuses by the recruitment agents and the ambiguous role they entail. 

While the interviews show them as criminally perceiving different types of fees and committing labour rights abuses when it comes to the purpose of mediating the job, the situation is as absurd as it is complex, and it shows how uncertain the situations were for the workers. Workers talk about arriving in the Netherlands and not being able to reach the person responsible for the housing. The interviews show cases of temporary homelessness or having to reach other Romanian migrants through internet platforms; being told only the address of the greenhouse with no further information and having to walk kilometres to get there, or cases of being threatened and even placed in dangerous situations by the same agents. As all the workers put it: “There might be some good agencies” (October 2019 interview, male respondent, 37), but since the number is high and increasing, there is always the factor of uncertainty when looking for one. As a result of similar practices, Romanians have created a Facebook group called “Missing persons in the Netherlands” where, deriving from my observations, a lot of more similar stories have been posted. 

Next to the statements regarding housing and documentation, there are also abuses regarding the workplace, such as the following response: “One time they sprayed something for the plants, and I don’t speak English, so I didn’t understand what they said, but it was chlorine and I was sick for the next days” (November-2019 interview, male respondent, 27).

Regarding collective actions taken against these abuses, the respondents indicated a Facebook group with the purpose of unmasking the agencies that commit abuses and informing the migrants about the ones that are “trustworthy”. For a future analysis, an intensive examination of these types of online groups might prove to be fruitful in further understanding the role of labour agencies as intermediary actors in grey zones of the economy. The respondents stress the fact that when they tried to protest abuses, they did not know where to find help or it was difficult for them to organize with the others. Migrants stress that the conditions are so bad that they cannot conceive that a syndicate could help them in any way.

Another important part of the data collected is given by the vulnerability of workers. The particularities of this vulnerability reside, first in the temporary character of the jobs related to the seasonal production cycles and second in the state’s inefficiency in offering protection to migrants and overseeing this process. 

The intersection of vulnerability and precarity creates unfair labour practices that call into question labour rights and assumptions of the modern economy, which predicate equal rights for every person. Workers talk about heinous housing conditions, such as living in trailers, camping tents, sharing rooms between five or more persons, or being left without a place to stay because of the need to change agencies or due to the lack of answers from responsible agents upon the workers’ arrival in the country. There is an important link between housing and work because when someone goes home and the living conditions are terrible, then work also becomes unbearable. At the same time bringing into the discussion a lot the living situation can also mean they cannot mobilize in any way at work. In most cases, the workers have housing that is dependent on their work and the same labour agency provides work and housing together. Therefore, any discussion on the effects of technological change on workers needs to take into consideration issues of precarity and realities that structurally hinder the process of collective organizing at the workplace.

A socioeconomic take on precarity then in this context shows a structural effect of stagnation of the Romanian migrants in the sphere of the 3D “demeaning, dangerous and dirty” (Cremers, J., 2016:22) jobs due to a constant devaluation of the contracts and the social relations implied in production. 

According to a male migrant interviewed in November 2019, in the Netherlands, migrants can change from one greenhouse to another only three times, if they don’t like the conditions, they will be sent back home. What the respondent means here is that if you do not find a way to get along with the recruitment agencies, you will have no other solution but to return, because they will not hire you anymore. Secondly, he points to an informal reputational system orchestrated by the recruitment agencies in which agents could inform each other about workers who protested or did not follow the instructions for other agencies not to hire them. 

Therefore, the already inferior places they inhabit in the market together with a lower status might be a key to understanding the mischance the migrants have to fully integrate socially. The aspect of being spatially separated by the cities and sometimes working colleagues can also be told in the story of integration. Drawing from this, the permanent moving actions that are made relaxed by the EU accession could also be influencing their apparent disorganization in front of abuses. Considering that everyone can travel freely, return home, or come to work only seasonally, the possibility of organizing among all workers becomes a difficult task.

Given the increasing numbers of migrants and the problems in enforcing regulations regarding their circumstances, the problem of wages also appears as a recurrent issue. One example of a regulation that in some cases is not monitored and enforced is the obligation to provide a minimum wage. Respondents have informed that they were paid less than the country’s minimum pay rate and would work increasing numbers of extra hours. In this context, it can be argued that these jobs are also demanding, next to being “demeaning, dangerous and dirty” (Cremers, J., 2016:22).

In lieu of conclusions, this research proposes some reflections. At present, academics, national reports, and syndicates have presented various accounts of the precarious nature of work in agriculture. This precarious type of migrant labour has become ingrained and indispensable for the agricultural sector of developed countries, but it remains unrecognized as such, while the problems and vulnerabilities of migrants are multiplying. 


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