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Essential migrants, expendable migrants: Recognising seasonal workers as ‘key’ will not prevent their exploitation

ANJA BENEDIKT  |  20 JUNE 2020  | ISSUE #10
(Margaret) Anja Benedikt article photo.j

Photo by muffin on Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

The coronavirus epidemic negatively impacts the livelihoods of seasonal workers in Germany. Yet, this unequal treatment and exploitation of seasonal workers is not new but only exacerbated by COVID-19. Moreover, recognising or rebranding seasonal workers in the current epidemic as ‘essential’ will not counteract their exploitation or improve their livelihoods. This is due to the long-standing requirement of migrants in Germany to be of ‘economic utility’, whereby migrants are expected to represent a benefit to the national economy. 


German farms annually depend on 300,000 seasonal workers from mainly Romania and Poland to help with the harvesting of vegetables, fruits and the production of wine. The closing of national borders and the restrictions in freedom of movement due to the coronavirus epidemic have led to labour shortages in the agricultural sector. In early April, the German government announced that it will allow 80,000 seasonal workers from Romania to enter Germany in chartered flights and under ‘strict guidelines’ despite the closing of national borders and the lockdown restrictions in both countries as a result of COVID-19. This decision negatively impacts the livelihoods of seasonal workers by aggravating their exploitation for example in the form of increased health risks, employer dependency and restricted access to social security. Yet, the epidemic itself does not bring about this exploitation but rather illustrates and reinforces already existing assumptions of seasonal workers needing to be of ‘economic utility’ that can be conducive to exploitation. In the following, I will analyse the concept of ‘economic utility’ and show its continuous – past and present – relevance to the German context. With this, I will elucidate that recognising seasonal workers in the current epidemic as ‘essential’ does not prevent them from being expendable and hence cannot represent a solution to improving their livelihoods.



Immigration as ‘Economic Utility'

The argumentation of ‘economic utility’ has first been identified in the German immigration discourses of 1960-1985 by Martin Wengeler. It implies that immigration is desirable when migrants are judged to be economically beneficial and, vice versa, that immigration is undesirable when migrants are judged to represent an economic burden. Christian Karner refers to this representation of migrants as an ‘instrumentalist discourse’ composed of the cost/benefit prism. The argumentation of ‘economic utility’ and the discourse on desirable immigration thereby follow an established pattern: 

1) The German economy needs to be successful. Germany re-discovered its identity and pride in the ‘economic miracle’ following World War II. The economy hence represents a source of German identity whether this nowadays is in the form of export numbers or as the ‘land of ideas’. Oliver Decker also terms this ‘Secondary Authoritarianism’, in which an authority like a leader is substituted by an idealised object such as the economy for providing national confidence. In the context of seasonal workers, the German Interior Ministry argues that ‘it is necessary to provide the public with sufficient quality produce’. Even if the general food supply is secured, it is reported that the loss of the harvest is an economic problem and a threat to farmers’ businesses. Therefore, crop failures need to be prevented. 

2) A national shortage in the workforce and hence the need for migrant workers is identified. For the last 20 years, Germany has sought to recruit skilled professionals for open vacancies and to counter demographic change. COVID-19 and the closing of national borders have among other effects led to a labour shortage in the agricultural sector. The German Interior Ministry explains that ‘the supply of domestic labour alone is not enough to meet this need’. Domestic workers are furthermore not sufficiently trained and experienced. Consequently, seasonal workers are ‘urgently needed’ or at least ‘their labour is urgently required’

3) Recruited migrants filling the labour shortage are (temporarily) positively portrayed. The guest workers of the 1960s constituted a pool of cheap labour that significantly contributed to the German ‘economic miracle’. Therefore, guest workers were initially celebrated with Armando Rodrigues as the millionth guest worker receiving a moped. Following the financial crisis, skilled migrants from Southern Europe were characterised as desirable, since they ‘do not threaten prosperity in Germany, but preserve it’. Indeed also the seasonal workers are positively portrayed mostly as ‘skilled’ and knowledgeable workers of many years. It is recognised that they are hard-working under difficult physical circumstances that Germans are unwilling or unable to do. A farmer noted that for one Romanian worker, he needs five German volunteers.


4) Acceptance is dependent on the continuous ‘economic utility’ of migrants. With the economic downturn in the 1970s and decreased demand for unskilled labour, the portrayal of guest workers changed towards greater rejection. In 2012, one of Germany’s leading broadsheets Die Süddeutsche highlighted the dependence of ‘economic utility’ by arguing that we should be happy about qualified migrants ‘as long as it works to make their different professional skills, their energy, their creativity useful for the economic cycle of our country’. While it is too early to tell for seasonal workers currently working in Germany during the pandemic, it is likely that their positive representation will only persevere as long as they serve their exploitative economic benefit.

How can the livelihoods of seasonal workers be improved? 


COVID-19 worsens the already existing exploitation of seasonal workers. One stipulated solution for combatting the exploitation of seasonal workers focuses on recognising them as ‘essential’ or as ‘key’ workers. Yet, the evaluation above shows that seasonal workers are already recognised for their skills. Moreover, identifying seasonal workers as ‘essential’ will not prevent them from being exploited if their economic benefit is precisely based on receiving lower wages and enduring worse working conditions or put simply by being expendable. In addition, highlighting the economic contribution of seasonal workers only plays into the hands of identifying migrants as an economic benefit, which in turn reinforces the argumentation of ‘economic utility’ in itself. Any real change in the livelihoods of seasonal workers has to be rooted in breaking the cost/benefit prism at its core – for all migrants and at any point in time.

Anja Benedikt photo.jpg

Anja Benedikt

Anja is a PhD student based at the University of Birmingham. She investigates identity constructions in discourses on migrant integration in the German news media. Anja holds a Master’s degree in European Studies and in Social Research and has completed a placement in the Migration and Border Analysis unit at the Home Office, UK. Within the field of migration, Anja is particularly interested in boundary drawing, belonging and exclusion.

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