Spargelfest and Migrant Labor

Workers harvest white asparagus, Spargel, on a farm in Germany. [Olympus X43 © via Pixabay under License CC Attribution 2.0]

A friend came to see me in a dream. From far away. And I asked in the dream: “Did you come by photograph or by train?” All photographs are a form of transport and an expression of absence.


— John Berger, A Seventh Man

Earlier this year, as the spread of COVID-19 prompted lockdowns across Europe, Germany’s annual Spargelfest appeared to be under threat. Spargel, or white asparagus, is a seasonal delicacy whose harvest is celebrated each spring, when locals and tourists alike gather at events around the country to enjoy the vegetable, which is typically slathered with butter or hollandaise sauce. While Spargel is promoted as a thoroughly German tradition, its harvest relies on the specialist work of migrant laborers, largely from Romania.1See “For the love of Spargel,” Michael Stuckbery, The Local (April 13, 2020). With a strict lockdown in Romania, and travel restricted in both countries, German farmers faced the prospect of being unable to to harvest their crops. However, in early April, the two countries agreed on an exemption that allowed seasonal workers to travel.2“Germany eases border rules to allow in harvest workers amid COVID-19 crisis,” DW.com (April 2, 2020); “Germany drafts Romanian farm labor for coronavirus pandemic,” DW.com (April 8, 2020); “Germany flies in seasonal workers with strict coronavirus precautions,” Luke Hurst, EuroNews (April 10, 2020). See also the European Commission guidelines for the free movement of critical workers, issued on March 30, 2020.

The decision to relax quarantine rules for the sake of a seasonal delicacy raises political and ethical concerns.

Flights were chartered to transport workers from Cluj, in northwest Romania, to Berlin and Düsseldorf, with buses arranged for transfer from the airports to farms. Health checks were required on departure and arrival, and farms were given strict rules for managing safety, including an initial quarantine period, guidelines for socially distanced working and living conditions, and contingency measures required in case of infection.3Ibid. First, the images of departing workers seem mundane: individuals crouch on the pavement, smartphones in hand, while others pass by, rolling their luggage to the terminal. Only when one recalls the reality of the COVID crisis does the image become jarring, reminding us that rigid quarantine regulations have been bent.

The decision to relax the rules for the sake of a seasonal delicacy raised concerns. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Costi Rogozanu, a Romanian journalist based in Bucharest, and Daniela Gaor, a professor of economics at UWE Bristol, questioned whether Western Europe’s food supplies were worth more than Eastern European workers’ health. They pointed to the “shocking” images that had emerged in Romania of “crammed buses” packed with laborers heading to Cluj-Napoca airport.4Costi Rogozanu and Daniela Gaor, “Are western Europe’s food supplies were worth more than eastern European workers’ health?,” The Guardian (April 16, 2020). For the images they mention, see “Thousands of Romanian seasonal workers fly to Germany despite COVID-19 restrictions,” Romania Insider (April 9, 2020). Also see “Romanian seasonal workers head to Germany despite COVID-19 pandemic,” The Local (April 10, 2020); and Carmen Paun, Eddy Wax, Laurenz Gehrke, and Judith Mischke, “Pandemic puts squeeze on Eastern Europe’s seasonal workers,” Politico (April 25, 2020).

Despite Germany’s insistence that exhaustive measures would be taken to ensure worker safety, Der Spiegel reported in late April that least one Romanian harvest cutter, Nicolae Bahan, died after testing positive for COVID-19 while working on a farm near Bad Krozingen. In an interview shortly after Bahan’s death, Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner stated that the official cause of death was a heart attack.5Nils Klawitter and Keno Verseck, “Ein Leben für den Spargel,” Der Spiegel Wirtschaft (April 22, 2020). While the myriad side effects of COVID-19 are still being studied, preliminary research indicates that the virus can cause cardiovascular disorders, and that mortality rates for patients with comorbidities are significantly higher. See Nishiga et al, “COVID-19 and cardiovascular disease: from basic mechanisms to clinical perspectives,” Nature Reviews Cardiology 17 (2020): 543–588.

Left: Guest workers from Mozambique, maintaining an open pit mine. [Rainer Weisflog © via Wikimedia under license by CC Attribution 3.0] Right: A Polish Vertragsarbeiter, or “contract worker,” inspects equipment on an East German farm. [Benno Bartocha © via Wikimedia under license by CC Attribution 3.0]

Foreign labor in Germany has a long history, of course, and the concerns being raised by the Spargel harvest recall many earlier debates about the treatment of migrant workers.6For an overview, see “The Evolution of German Media Coverage of Migration,” Gualtiero Zambonini, Transatlantic Council on Migration (2009). Prior to reunification, both the East and West German economies were significantly augmented by Gastarbeiter (or Vertragsarbeiter, as they were typically called in the GDR), or foreign guest workers. In the West, migrant labor was brought in from Italy, Portugal, and Turkey; in the East, most foreign workers hailed from socialist countries in the Balkans and other Eastern bloc countries, as well as from Vietnam and Mozambique.7See “Germany: Immigration in Transition,” Veysal Oezcan, Migration Policy Institute (July 1, 2004) ; “Geschlossene Gesellschaft,” Stefan Wolle, Zeit Online (December 18, 2015).

Foreign labor in Germany has a long history.

In A Seventh Man, published in 1975, critic John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr examined the conditions of migrant labor in Europe. Berger’s text charts the experience of an anonymous migrant across different stages in his journey: “Departure,” “Work,” and “Return.” The protagonist recounts the pain of leaving family, the humiliation of medical screenings, the fear of traveling into the unknown, and the bittersweet joy of returning home. The book, as Berger wrote in a 2010 introduction, has become “younger as the years pass.”8John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man: A Book of Images and Words about the Experience of Migrant Workers in Europe, (London: Penguin, 2010 [1975]), 7. Berger described how guest workers were understood as “immortal because they are not born, they do not age or get tired”; instead, they were reduced to “a single function — to work.”9Berger and Mohr, 64. His language here bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that used by Rogozanu and Gaor more than four decades later in their Guardian article, where they argue that migrant workers were being “reduc[ed] to a dehumanized ‘labor supply.’” In this case, the situation is complicated further by the additional risks of traveling and working during a global pandemic.

Alongside Berger’s incisive and poetic text, Mohr sought in his images to capture the “erasure inherent in migration,” an erasure also reflected in the photographs captured this spring.10Alexis Zhangi, “The Myth of Thumbprints: Reading John Berger in Berlin,” Los Angeles Review of Books (August 19, 2016). “Migration involved the transfer of a valuable economic resource — human labor — from poor to rich countries,” Berger wrote above an image of a group of laborers waiting on a train platform in Geneva.11Berger and Mohr, 72. By documenting people and experiences that are not usually seen, Mohr’s photographs raised deeper questions about our perception, our understanding, of itinerant laborers and their required sacrifices. This year’s Spargel harvest demands that we pay new attention to the workers who allow our food festivals to take place in the midst of global crisis.

Notes

  1. See Michael Stuckbery, “For the love of Spargel,” The Local, April 13, 2020.
  2. See “Germany eases border rules to allow in harvest workers amid COVID-19 crisis,” DW.com, April 2 2020; “Germany drafts Romanian farm labor for coronavirus pandemic,” DW.com, April 8, 2020; Luke Hurst, “Germany flies in seasonal workers with strict coronavirus precautions,” Luke Hurst, EuroNews, April 10, 2020. Also see the European Commission guidelines to ensure free movement of critical workers, issued on March 30, 2020.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Costi Rogozanu and Daniela Gaor, “Are western Europe’s food supplies were worth more than eastern European workers’ health?,” The Guardian (April 16, 2020). For the images they mention, see “Thousands of Romanian seasonal workers fly to Germany despite COVID-19 restrictions,Romania Insider (April 9, 2020). Also see “Romanian seasonal workers head to Germany despite COVID-19 pandemic,” The Local (April 10, 2020); and Carmen Paun, Eddy Wax, Laurenz Gehrke, and Judith Mischke,“Pandemic puts squeeze on Eastern Europe’s seasonal workers,”  Politico (April 25, 2020).
  5. Nils Klawitter and Keno Verseck, “Ein Leben für den Spargel,” Der Spiegel Wirtschaft (April 22, 2020). While the myriad side effects of COVID-19 are still being studied, preliminary research indicates that the virus can cause cardiovascular disorders, and that mortality rates for patients with co-morbidities are significantly higher. See Nishiga et al., “COVID-19 and cardiovascular disease: from basic mechanisms to clinical perspectives,” Nature Reviews Cardiology 17 (2020): 543–588.
  6. For an overview see Gualtiero Zambonini, “The Evolution of German Media Coverage of Migration,” Transatlantic Council on Migration, 2009.
  7. Veysal Oezcan, “Germany: Immigration in Transition,” Migration Policy Institute, July 1, 2004; Stefan Wolle, “Geschlossene Gesellschaft,”  Zeit Online (December 18, 2015).
  8. John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man: A Book of Images and Words about the Experience of Migrant Workers in Europe, (London: Penguin, 2010 [1975]), 7.
  9. John Berger and Jean Mohr, 64.
  10. Alexis Zhangi, “The Myth of Thumbprints: Reading John Berger in Berlin,” Los Angeles Review of Books (August 19, 2016).
  11. John Berger and Jean Mohr, 72.

About the Author

Holly Bushman

Holly Anderson Bushman holds an M.E.D. from the Yale School of Architecture and a B.S. in math from Bates College. Her research explores art and architecture from Eastern and Central Europe, with a focus on concepts of transnationalism and design-as-diplomacy in East Germany, Yugoslavia, and Romania in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her writing on art and architecture has appeared in several publications and she has assisted with exhibitions at M 2 3 Gallery in New York and held positions at the Yale University Art Gallery.