Over the past century, EU agriculture has changed drastically due to industrialization, upscaling and intensification, competing moreover within a global agri-food market. Labour intensive sectors such as fruit and vegetable horticulture became increasingly dependent on cheap and flexible workers from other EU Member States and beyond. In regions like Haspengouw (Belgium) and Westland (the Netherlands) with intensive concentrations of horticultural industry, this form of seasonal and migrant labour leaves significant, yet often invisible, socio-economic marks. In Haspengouw, a region known for its fruit horticulture, and Westland, a municipality known for its greenhouse agriculture, hundreds of thousands of Central and Eastern European migrant workers are employed through temporary contracts in order for the plantations and greenhouses to keep financially afloat. Because of the seasonal nature of agriculture and the constant need for flexible, dismissible labour, migrant workers are often seen and treated as either temporary or seasonal newcomers, or as (potential) victims of exploitation. What does this mean for migrant workers that are trying to find their way upon arrival in Haspengouw or Westland? How are they perceived and channeled locally as newcomers and how do they themselves navigate and challenge these arrival infrastructures around (temporary) labour? This research, which departed from five different agricultural worksites in Westland and Haspengouw, and one migrant hotel in Westland, shows that ambivalent forms of newcomership emerge at this intersection of agriculture, migration and labour. Other ethnographic starting points have been specific spaces, organizations and neighbourhoods in nearby urban areas, such as The Hague and Brussels, where many agricultural migrant workers live, meet and find help.

Broader context

Agriculture and migration in Westland and Haspengouw have a historical relation through labour that precedes the expansion of the European Union in 2004, shaping the current context of agricultural labour migration in these two regions. When growers in the 1980s and 1990s could not meet the labour and financial demands, Turkish and Moroccan guestworkers already present in the Netherlands and Belgium were employed. In Haspengouw, Sikh refugees found, often informal, employment as fruit pickers. Together with national legislations to allow for more flexible and temporary labour, expansion of the EU in 2004 and 2007 provided new possibilities for both farmers that were looking for extra ‘hands’ and for new EU citizens looking for more work and financial opportunities. From these emerging mobilities, (in)formal transnational migration industries have developed in which employment agencies, farmers and brokers became important, and often also profiting, actors in channelling agricultural migrant workers into temporary work and housing. Whereas in Haspengouw this mostly entails informal recruitment, a seasonal and non-contractual work status, and dislocated housing on or nearby the plantations, growers in Westland outsource labour to employment agencies who offer temporary, zero-hour contracts and housing facilities of varying quality. Even though in both countries national attempts have been made to improve potential exploitation and precarious situations, local municipalities and ‘locals’ in Westland and Haspengouw seem to regard migrant workers as economically important but not necessarily as co-citizens that inhabit a structural place in the region.


Almost four months of fieldwork have been spent working on five different plantations, greenhouses and factories in Westland and Haspengouw, during which it was also possible to stay in one of the few large-scale migrant hotels in Westland. Working on these sites made it possible to better understand the ways agricultural labour and migration regimes work out in the repetitive physical labour on the fields and in social interactions between (different groups of) migrant workers and employers. From these places, the research followed different people, trajectories, communities and infrastructures that are involved in the arrival situation and (temporary) settlement of migrant workers. Spatially, this has also meant following people from agricultural workplaces to surrounding and further-away urban areas where many migrant workers live and organize themselves. Besides participant observation, research has taken place by means of interviewing different (infrastructuring) actors, mapping exercises, participatory research methods and collecting and analysing legal and policy documents. These proved to be productive in understanding both the broader economic and political context as well as various positions and challenges in the field of horticulture and labour migration.

Main insights

From this ethnographic research, it has become clear that even though these specific kinds of newcomers fulfil a crucial and structural role in the national and regional economy, the assumed and regimented temporariness inherent to the way agricultural migrant work is organized and controlled by different actors diffuses and obstructs 1) structural provision and access to resources and rights, 2) normative ideas around as well as opportunities for (local) integration 3) and avenues for social mobility. “We don’t notice anything” has not only become the slogan to sell large-scale housing facilities in the Netherlands in peripheral areas, but also emblematic for the containment, dislocation and subsequent invisibility of migrant workers. “Where do we go?” one of the Polish strawberry pickers in Haspengouw shared, who is working seven days a week and is staying in accommodation close to the plantation. Even though many migrant workers appreciate the package-deal of work and housing by employers, especially during their first messy and uncertain months of arrival, it also portrays their one-sided dependency on the employer for information, rights, care and other resources. Together with local policies that emphasize that migrant workers do not need access to information or resources other than temporary work and housing because ‘they have no wish to integrate’, this spatial dislocation and regulated temporariness perpetuate insecurity and precarity.

Despite these assumptions and systems of temporariness, trajectories and aspirations of migrant workers are more diverse than often assumed and do not only include subjective experiences of exploitation. Even though plans might be short-term, temporary or open-ended at the beginning, migrant workers delay their return, start families, get unintentionally entrapped, and develop aspirations for their futures in the Netherlands, Belgium or someplace else. The accounts of interlocuters in this report show that endurance, situational solidarity on the work- and house sites, even when this comes with tensions, are crucial to keep this type of work and life bearable to achieve these aspirations, though only some are able to escape the temporary labour regime. The report argues that it is also through this endurance and solidarity that the unsustainability of agricultural migrant work is currently challenged. This challenge is fuelled by current debates on labour migration and pressures on agriculture as a whole. Some infrastructuring actors such as NGO’s, labour unions, politicians, farmers, other employers but also migrant workers themselves, are already pointing towards (the potential of) more sustainable and inclusive arrival infrastructures. The next phase of research will therefore focus on arrival infrastructures and practices based on this sustainability and hence structural provision and access to resources, information and solidarity, beyond labour and regardless of the people’s temporary, longer-term or seasonal presence as newcomers.