How does intra-European transnational labor migration in agriculture change the material conditions and status of the most underprivileged groups living in the European peripheries from which this labor originates? How do the dominant groups react? While a rich literature looks at transnational labor migration from Eastern Europe to Western Europe, there is still room for research on the ethical relations that structure these flows, as well as on the material effects that it has on communities characterized by extreme marginality such as that of the rural Roma.
This article relies on an ethnographic account triggered by a vignette. Consider the case of one of the informants for this paper. At the age of eighteen, D.S. went abroad to work in agriculture for the first time, picking onions in Germany, with his father who had been doing seasonal work for several years. They had their accommodation provided, three to four people in a room, and received ten euros a day, which they used to buy food. For their grocery shopping, they had to walk two or three kilometers. They would stock up on food, soda, and other supplies, usually to last them two weeks, so as not to lose too much of their working time. They worked every day, rarely having a Sunday off, and if they did have a Sunday off, they would not be paid and had money withheld for accommodation. They also worked on Easter and any other religious holiday.
D.S. describes himself as being a Roma. He lives with his family in a very small village in Sălaj County, where he was born and raised in a tiny, crowded house. D.S. continued to travel to Germany to work in agriculture every year. For the last two years, after she turned eighteen, his Romanian wife joined him. He’s twenty-four and she’s twenty, and they have a three-year-old son, and a short time ago, with the money saved from seasonal farm work, they bought a tiny two-room house without plumbing in the village. It cost them about 4,000 euros, a paltry sum even by Romanian village standards. When I spoke to them, they were in the middle of building work, adding two more rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen, to their home. They had hoped to have all the walls up and the house finished that year, but their initial estimate was thrown off by the significant rise in the price of building materials. They measure out their investment in agricultural work shifts, from which they deduct living and other expenses for the periods when they live in Romania. Here they cannot survive on what they earn as informal day laborers in their village or in neighboring villages, even if they top it up with the meager social aid they receive from the state (less than 100 euros for the entire family, i.e., a third of Romania’s minimum wage). The following year (2022), we passed through the village again, but their house, although boasting a roof, remained unfinished.
The Romanian neighbor who facilitated our contact, who has several years of experience working in agriculture in Spain himself, speaks highly of this mixed couple and frames them as an example of integration into mainstream Romanian society, of earnestness, and a good work ethic. There are fewer and fewer ethnic Romanians in the village community, and the houses for sale are often bought by Roma with cash, their earnings from seasonal agricultural work in Western Europe. The local Roma toil to move into better homes, away from the ghetto-like backstreet they grew up on.
But not everyone shares their Romanian neighbor’s perspective. Many lament the replacement of the Romanians with the Roma in the solidly built houses that make up most of the village, describing the process as “Gypsyisation.” One example is the village parish priest, whose children attend the village primary school and who complains that Romanian pupils have to share classrooms with Roma children, who make up the vast majority of schoolchildren. On the other hand, the same priest recounted how he had allegedly opposed the request of some Romanian parishioners that he refuse the Roma burial services or baptism services on account that many of the Roma parishioners do not pay their church fees.
Although the significant and steadily increasing presence of Roma seasonal workers is mentioned by many of the seasonal workers interviewed, an estimate of their numbers/percentages is difficult to come by, given that in many cases those described as Roma reject the Roma ethnic identity, declaring to be Romanian or, in some cases, Hungarian. This rejection of an ethnic identity perceived as stigmatizing is all the stronger in communities where Romani is not spoken, as it is the case for the population of one village in Sibiu County where I did fieldwork last summer.
This article is part of a larger research on the Romanian rural world and the transformations it underwent in the post-communist period, especially those brought about by transnational migration. As part of this research, over the last four years, I have documented transnational migration and the effects of this phenomenon in several rural communities in the counties of Sălaj, Bistrița-Năsăud, Satu-Mare, and, very recently, Sibiu, where I spent longer or shorter periods of time, conducting a series of in-depth and semi-structured interviews, taking participant observation notes, and having numerous informal conversations. For this article I have used some of the interviews and notes produced in the framework of this research, as well as a series of interviews and notes from this year’s fieldwork, specifically looking at Roma seasonal migration and its effects on rural communities. In addition, I have been carefully reading media reports covering the past three years, as well as posts and comments on platforms such as Facebook, constantly monitoring Facebook groups associated with rural localities, where alongside posts and comments by locals, advertisements for jobs on Western farms are regularly posted by middlemen.
In the summer of 2020, while doing fieldwork for the article “The Human Cost of Fresh. Romanian Workers and Germany’s Food Supply Chains,” I spoke to several seasonal workers who had just returned from working on farms in Germany, where they had arrived in April on special air flights. Many of them were Roma, as I found out when I met them, living in rural communities in Satu-Mare, Bihor, or Sălaj from where whole groups would leave, especially in spring and autumn. The growing number of Roma seasonal workers was also confirmed by other interlocutors who had returned from farms, and the following year I conducted several interviews with Roma workers who had been doing seasonal work for ten to fifteen years on farms in Germany, Italy, Spain, or the UK. They spoke of seasonal departures, year after year, in groups of dozens of workers from their home communities and from other communities. The presence of Roma on Western farms, especially in Germany, was also reflected by a racist tone, as some Romanian seasonal workers complained in interviews about their increasing numbers and sometimes about how the Roma accept worse working conditions, accommodation, and pay than Romanians or other nationalities. In some cases, it is precisely the increasing share of the Roma in agricultural work that is mentioned among the reasons for the ethnic Romanians’ choosing other countries and other farms as destinations for seasonal migration.
A Romanian couple I interviewed in December 2021 in a village in Sălaj County told me about their fourteen-year experience doing seasonal work in Germany and their recent move to a farm in the Netherlands. The main reasons for their decision to move were better pay and better working and living conditions than they had previously experienced, and they complemented their descriptions with photos of the farms. Their account included not only mention of the constant presence of Roma workers on the German farms where they used to work but also an analogy with how and why in the past Romanian workers had gradually taken the place of Polish seasonal migrants:
A pocăit [“repenter,” Romanian folk term for evangelical Christian] from Oradea took us there the first time. Seeing the Poles taking a cigarette or beer break after finishing one row of asparagus, he had told the owner that he could bring him more Romanian workers, who didn’t take such breaks, and thus increase his productivity. That’s how we ended up taking the Poles’ place over a few seasons, and now the Gypsies replace the Romanians who, in turn, no longer accept those working conditions and the money they are paid and look for work in other countries.
As Romanians have switched to farms in other countries or to better-paid sectors, such as construction, forestry, transport, or the meat industry, the Roma population in poor rural communities has become a key recruitment pool for middlemen and recruitment firms. On the other hand, there are clear demonstration effects at work. The euro goes a long way in these communities, and after a two- or three-month shift of seasonal agricultural work, one can save enough to improve one’s housing situation, which in turn incentivizes others to follow suit, thus turning seasonal migration into a life and coping strategy. “They leave from here by minibus, sixty at a time, several times during work seasons,” said one interlocutor from a village in Sibiu County, whom I interviewed this summer. She then explained to me how the money earned this way had made it possible for the majority of small adobe houses to be renovated and extended or replaced with new buildings made from bricks and mortar, complete with sewer system and running water.
Transnational farm work is precarious work by definition yet the demand for it is fueled by the real improvements in the material conditions of the precarious who engage in their own forms of intensive work, with no days off and a lot of overtime, followed by a period of rest, but no longer than a week or two. Some continue to engage in transnational farm work, while for others the experience leads to job search strategies in neighboring towns while maintaining open the seasonal labor option, often in sequential patterns. A woman explained to me in a recent interview how she took advantage of the current labor crisis (Romania has been running a hot labor market for years): employed in a supermarket or company counter, she would ask for two months of unpaid leave to go every year for a season of agricultural work in Germany. Should the employer not grant her unpaid leave, she would resign, and on her return to Romania would look for another job, reassured that offers were plentiful within commuting distance to Sibiu, the county seat. At the same time, my fieldwork has also revealed situations where women who returned from farms in Germany in the context of the COVID-19 crisis immediately re-entered the less well-paid informal market in their home communities, picking fruit or doing other agricultural work.
In the case of men, when they are not away on farms in the West, many work in construction in their home communities or in nearby villages and towns, at least until the cold season arrives. Such work is done on the black market, in most cases that I am familiar with. These are small jobs (redoing a bathroom, extension/renovation of a house) or scavenging. For very poor families where no member is employed and where there are no children to open up child allowance income lines, reliance on the paltry Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) for the periods they spend in Romania, especially during the cold season, remains their only lifeline. But where the GMI matters the most (the amount itself being insignificant, namely around 30 euros per person per month) is that it makes one eligible for access to public health benefits. However, in many cases, being on the Guaranteed Minimum Income, in addition to the Children’s Education Allowance, is also important to be able to buy supplies on credit at the village shop, if needed. So these seasonal migrants go off the Guaranteed Minimum Income during the months when they work abroad, and then go back on it for the periods when they are at home, according to cycles well-known to the mayors and civil servants who process the paperwork.
Interviews show that the money earned during the months of employment in the West is invested in housing and/or providing for the remaining months. In the case of rural communities with larger and relatively compact Roma communities located in particular (peripheral) areas of the village, investments in building new houses or renovating and extending old ones can be divided into two broad categories: housing in the ghetto or outside the ghetto, namely in areas inhabited by Romanians or Hungarians. In localities where the local authorities have extended public infrastructure (asphalt roads, water, sewer, electricity networks) also to the areas inhabited by the Roma population, the number of those investing their money in better housing in their own communities is obviously much higher than in localities where investments in infrastructure have bypassed those areas or only partially covered them.
But even so, especially in localities affected by population decline due to long-term transnational migration and exodus to cities, the Roma buying houses or land to build a new house has become common practice, as other recent studies reveal. For some families, as shown by an interview with a woman who had been working seasonally in Germany for more than ten years, buying a house “in the village” among Romanians was the main motivation to continue working abroad. Although she had invested steadily in her house at the foot of a hill, just across the bridge from “the village” inhabited by Romanians—the river dividing the two communities—she emphasized the importance of being able to buy or build a house “in the village” in order to provide a better life for her children.
Yet this desire to move out of the segregated neighborhood for better living conditions arouses diametrically opposite reactions from the ethnic majority. While for some locals, Romanians or Hungarians, seasonal work abroad is evidence of hard work and a source of social respect, with buying a solid house as proof of good judgment and capacity for integration, for others the praise stops at the work abroad part, and the limits of the Roma ghetto are socially restated. Buying or building houses outside the Roma community is described by some locals in terms of an invasion, “Gypsyisation,” a breaking of a boundary between two worlds that can coexist at most in a kind of relative neighborliness, but without much intermingling.
This discourse has real bite. The most radical reactions include putting pressure on the sellers to block the transaction. The proximity of Roma communities, although most often described as problematic, a source of tension, and a long-term danger due to these communities’ higher demographic growth compared to that of Romanian and Hungarian communities, becomes useful when day labor is needed (which is often, given the advanced aging of these villages). But even so, the use of Roma workers for casual and seasonal work in the community or outside the community does not make their work more visible and does not seem to remove the stigma of laziness from the discourse of most beneficiaries.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.