In March, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, the European Commission issued guidelines that seasonal agricultural workers be treated as frontline workers in order to save fruit and veg harvests.
The issue came to a head in Ireland in mid-April as Keeling's decision to fly in Bulgarian workers to harvest berries raised concern among the public, politicians and even the State’s Chief Medical Officer.
The controversy highlighted the dearth of public knowledge about how our food is produced and how the role and working conditions of seasonal migrant labourers, a vital cog in the bloc’s agricultural model, remain under the radar in a sector known to be vulnerable to labour exploitation.
While demand for 1,500 seasonal workers on Ireland’s commercial fruit and vegetables farms pales in comparison to the numbers required in our larger EU neighbours, this makes up over 20% of annual direct employment in the horticultural sector, which employs just under 7,500 annually.
This highlights a bigger problem for our island – the lack of long-term sustainability in the sector, its reliance on cheap labour to produce food and an inability to offer security of supply due to its small size, operating out of less than 1% of agricultural land here.
HELP US INVESTIGATE
We want to investigate labour conditions in the horticultural sector, if the rights granted to seasonal workers under EU law are being respected here, and how we compare to other European countries.
We will examine what the State can do to ensure food security for our island as well as create local, sustainable supply chains that are beneficial for the consumer, farmer and labourer.
We will speak to small-scale farmers about how their business has been impacted by the coronavirus-crisis, and the innovative projects started to ensure they meet demand for fresh, local produce during the pandemic and how a sustainable, direct selling model could be supported into the future.
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This project has been co-funded by contributions from members of the public and a grant from the IJ4EU (Investigative Journalism for Europe) Publication Support Scheme.