As part of its investigation into working conditions for migrant horticulture workers, Noteworthy teamed up with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) to better understand the lure for workers to come to Ireland and the impact in Bulgaria and Romania, the home countries of a large percentage of workers who come here every year.
BULGARIA IS NOT only the EU’s poorest member state, but also among the countries with the fastest shrinking population in the world, projected to lose 23% of its population by 2050.
This demographic drop is not only a result of low fertility rates but is also down to a combination of record mortality and mass emigration.
Data analyst Boyan Yurukov and economist Georgi Angelov from the Sofia-based Institute of Market Economy have estimated that around 1.3 million Bulgarians live abroad from a country with a population of seven million people.
This estimate is closely in line with an analysis from the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Agriculture, which estimated in 2018 that out of 1.2 million Bulgarians who worked in Europe at the time, around 30% are seasonal workers in the agricultural sector.
This form of economic migration is a significant factor in Bulgaria’s economy, with remittances far exceeding foreign direct investment (FDI) in recent years.
In the first nine months of 2019, transfers from Bulgarian emigrants to their families amounted to over €920 million compared to €715 million in FDI, according to the Bulgarian National Bank.
Romanian migrants, including those taking part in seasonal horticultural work in Ireland and the UK, have also played a significant role in developing the country’s economy.
According to Eurostat, Romania (3.3% of GDP) was the third most dependent country on remittance allowance in the EU in 2019, just behind Bulgaria (3.4% of GDP).
Better pay on offer abroad
Mass migration to the farming fields of Western Europe does not come as a surprise as countries can offer better conditions in terms of pay and social security.
The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Agriculture estimates that the average salary in the Bulgarian agricultural sector is around 900 leva (€450) per month.
In comparison, Bulgarian workers who recently worked in the Irish horticulture sector told Noteworthy and BIRN that they can earn over €1,200 per month here.
Another pull factor is access to high unemployment benefits in Bulgaria after being employed at a salary many multiples of what a worker would have secured back home.
We also contacted Romanian nationals who showed interest in job adverts posted online to recruit Romanians at home or already living abroad for jobs in Ireland.
While none of those that replied were willing to share the reason why they were applying for such jobs, BIRN has previously spoken to Romanian seasonal workers emigrating to Western Europe who said that they took the work to double or triple their salaries.
In the case of those moving permanently to other countries, superior schooling conditions, pensions and public health services in Western Europe often make the difference for the migrants to remain abroad, despite potential opportunities opening back home.
Ireland a ‘preferred destination’
There are around 3,000 licensed agencies who recruit seasonal workers from Bulgaria to different European countries. Positions are also advertised by the Bulgarian Employment Agency through the official EU-wide network EURES.
The Agency recently told the Bulgarian business weekly Capital that it had served as an intermediary for 1,200 workers who found work in the European agricultural sector during the first three months of 2020.
According to Madlen Nikolova, a doctoral student at the University of Sheffield, who has examined labour conditions in Bulgaria, the UK and Ireland are preferred destinations for Bulgarian workers compared to traditional destinations like Greece, Spain and Italy, where living and working conditions for workers can be much worse.
She recalls cases of horticulture workers in Spain who said that they had to sleep in rooms of six or seven people in wagons in the agricultural fields without running water, while working on the black market in Greece remains widespread among Bulgarian seasonal workers.
“Many of these people actually are employed in Bulgaria but the wages are so humiliatingly low, that, for example, in the tailoring factories, people would take unpaid leave to work in the fields of Greece, Spain or the UK to be able to afford heating for one season,” she added.
Most of the workers also leave the country with the help of private intermediary companies which advertise vacancies in official job websites, forums, social networks and private groups of Bulgarian communities living abroad.
Word of mouth among workers and friends or relatives also remain among the most popular ways in which workers from the two countries find out about work abroad.
Labour shortages back home
While this is clearly beneficial for the workers themselves, the agriculture sector in Bulgaria and Romania has suffered from labour shortages as workers go to work in the more competitive European markets.
Amid the first national Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020, the Bulgarian Association of Agricultural Producers opposed the creation of green corridors for seasonal workers by the European Commission due to the impact on the local labour force.
“I can tell you that right now in the [Romanian] countryside it is harder to find a day labourer in agriculture than a CEO for a multinational company,” according to Florin Constantin, the founder of AGXecutive, a company that specialises in recruiting and training agricultural professionals.
A number of entrepreneurial projects have failed because of this, he said, as farmers cannot find people ready to pick fruit during harvest and cannot afford to bring in workers from outside of the EU to cover the gaps in labour.
According to Constantin, whose company conducts periodic market surveys, Romanian day labourers earn between €30 and €45 per day, well below that offered in Ireland, even after paying for accommodation and transport.
In the first part of this series, we examined concerns with labour practices in the two largest industries in horticulture – mushrooms and soft fruit production.
In part three, out this evening, we look at the industry push for non-EU worker visas that has raised concern with unions, migrant rights groups and some Government departments.
Reporting from Maria Cheresheva and Marcel Gascón Barberá at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, a network of non-governmental organisations promoting freedom of speech, human rights and democratic values in Southern and Eastern Europe.
Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. We have a number of farming-related proposals which you can view here.
The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.