Transnationally mobile work at times of COVID-19

On 7 April, we held a class on cross-border assistance offered to transnationally mobile  workers in countries in which they perform their work. In this context, we hosted a guest speaker – Mr Szabolcs Sepsi from the Fair Mobility Initiative. The Fair Mobility initiative is a project run by the German state and DGB, the country’s biggest trade union confederation, which aims to support mobile workers from CEE who fell victim of exploitation while working in Germany. It also raises awareness of the German labour law among foreign employees, promoting legal employment and fair working conditions.

The talk was extremely interesting, especially its part related to the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic on working conditions of transnationally mobile workers in Germany. According to Mr Sepsi, two types of impacts are discernible. First, many workers are unlawfully dismissed ‘from one day to the other’. Such employees are in acute need of assistance since when they get fired they lose not only their source of income, but often also accommodation, as the latter tends to be provided by the employer. Second, those who remain employed oftentimes are forced to work additional hours in order to meet the growing demand for certain products. The latter development is typical for the meat industry, which was notorious for the bad working conditions already before the coronavirus outbreak. Also this group of workers requires FM’s team assistance in enforcing their labour rights.

Another interesting aspect of Mr Sepsi’s intervention ere the effects of the current lockdown on the bargaining power of German seasonal workers in the agriculture industry. The fact that fewer workers are available this year work should in principle put seasonal workers in a favourable position and allow it to demand higher wages and working conditions. In many cases, however, restrictions on spatial mobility imposed as part of the anti-COVID 19 measures do not allow them to leave their workplaces and use the threat of changing employers as a bargaining tool.

All in all, the talk highlighted the crucial importance of transnationally mobile CEE workers for Western European economies. At the same time, it also revealed that the hard work performed by them is not always adequately valued.