Day 30 – Harvesting. Food shopping. The body.
Reference communist joke for laughs:
"There´s a long line. One guy approaches the first person in line, an elderly lady, and asks:
- Excuse me, what is being sold today?
- I have no clue. I started feeling sick half an hour ago and leaned onto a wall. When I felt a bit better this long line formed behind me.
- So, then, why don’t you leave?
- Well, I can´t leave now! I’m the first in line! "
I visit supermarkets, wait in line, only my line does move. I get reminded of what used to be a month or so ago, before the panic, before the chaos, before the boredom, before we were assigned supermarket kids that would wipe down carts individually for each shopper. There was a world before standing in line made us all look like some variation of a communist joke. Only this is it, folks, we´re still in rampant capitalism!
I visit supermarkets and do my little pandemic dance within them. And just to be sure I’m appropriately prepared, I take up the time to watch a new short study on the movement of air-borne particles made by Finnish researchers.
“In the 3d model, a person coughs in a corridor bounded by shelves under representative indoor ventilation airflow conditions. As a result of coughing, an aerosol cloud travels in the air to the corridor. It takes up to several minutes for the cloud to spread and disperse."
Due to the urgency of our current predicament, studies like the one above, as well as many others, are rushed through academia at an alarming pace. What previously used to take months, if not actually years, now takes weeks to make public, since we hope that any and all forms of scientific knowledge that might shed light on how COVID-19 is spreading will manage to offer one more layer of protection, will be sure to make us feel like we can comply and be safe. But speed is not always the answer. Sometimes the only thing it can insure is a mild form of paranoia.
I have a friend who has been in quarantine for weeks now. She goes supermarket shopping with large sunglasses and a decorative scarf covering her actual filtered mask for fear of looking like a freak. She looks like a freak. But looks aren’t everything!
Repeat after me: I am aware of my body.
Yet I shop for food in person nonetheless. It also remains one of the few social activities that I engage in. When going shopping I look for patterns that have formed since we slipped from normality. If the initial tendency for most was to shop for pasta and pre-made sauce, the latest trend seems to hover around flour and condiments. Young men continue to buy Corona beer, and they look just like you would imagine.While picking up items, we gather carefully, twist and turn and hope others will move just a teensy bit faster to allow us to make our own selection. In these times of isolation, it seems that deciding on your shopping item while pondering in front of a shelf is turning into a social faux pas. It can even go one step further, as a Twitter post from a UK police account documented the beginning of police agents filtering what is essential and what is superfluous in a supermarket shopping round. Their ultimate aim most likely? To limit you from going out to buy just a pack of Doritos. There are moments in time when light fascism seems like the natural choice for some. For cops maybe even more so.
I too look for flour and condiments, but the veggie aisle is one of my first stops. I approach it slowly. Take three consecutive items in my hand and look for the country of origin notice, moving through geography: rhubarb - The Netherlands; celery - Belgium; spring onion - Germany.
As of this first week in April, Germany announced it will relax conditions for seasonal workers in agriculture, after one week prior it had announced that they will impose restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but farmers ended up in arms about the decision. Most workers entering Germany come from Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, what tends to still be lumped together in some mysterious blob under the banner of “Eastern Europe”. Even though flights to and from Romania have been suspended for 14 days and all bus trips were restricted, as well as all individual arrivals, companies that are in charge of recruiting have taken an alternative route and started to get charter airplanes prepared. This came as a result of the decision to let seasonal workers pass, hand in hand with Eastern governments.
There is European solidarity, less in the form of equal responsibility, more in allowing cheap labor force to pass through when it´s needed and for whom it is needed. The German flights are at times coordinated through Dutch airports. In the Netherlands, in Eindhoven, there is talk of “asparagus-flights”. The workers that are wanted in Germany can also end up being flown into Eindhoven airport and then brought across the border in vans. Other flights go from Cluj to Berlin and then further, where needed.
As I pick up a bunch of asparagus, I watch images and videos on my phone of crowds in an airport in Cluj, Romania, where 1.800 people were waiting to board on 12 separate flights as workers that will supplement the German labor force. There is little to no social distancing on display, but almost everybody is wearing masks, which only get lowered for the occasional cigarette. The Romanian prime minister, Ludovic Orban, had announced that he won’t restrict the travel of seasonal workers, declaring that Romania is part of the EU, the place where freedom of circulation of citizens, goods, and ideas is guaranteed.
Of course, the reasoning has nothing to do with freedom. At least my personal understanding of freedom is also one in which the state doesn’t put forth its workers and sacrifices their health for the good of cross-border diplomacy. Freedom needs to be supplemented by care. And while some Romanians, higher up the food chain, commended the move for the simple reason that the ones that leave don’t beg the government for money but go to do some decent hard work in an economically more developed country, there are plenty of questions that come up.
The gross hourly rate for a seasonal agricultural worker hovers around 10,00 Euros an hour in the Netherlands. Germany most likely practices the same rate. Workers oftentimes pay rent every week to their employer (around 90 Euros or so at Dutch rates), which houses them in camps, in shared accommodation, close to the working fields or greenhouses. Workers also need to pay health insurance in the country they work in. In the case of the COVID-19 restrictions, the thousands of Romanian workers that will be flown into Germany will be placed in a working quarantine with limited travel between the greenhouses or fields and their employer-provided housing.
But these workers, which risk their lives traveling in time of pandemic to prop up another country´s economy, are not just pushed in this precarious condition by their own government´s lack of care, they are also viewed, by the Western countries where they will end up, as potential virus spreaders. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!
And here come the questions, as I move towards the milk aisle in the supermarket:
- Why doesn’t the German state supplement its lack of workforce with local workers?
- Vegetables still need to be picked from the fields, but will we go back to a world in which the same levels of production are needed?
A recent initiative called ‘Benefrietjes’ was inaugurated in the Netherlands. It aims at tackling the food waste in the potato harvesting sector which came up as a result of the restrictions of gatherings and closed restaurants and restricted travel. "In order to combat large-scale food waste", it says, "it is necessary to eat potatoes right now and to reduce the acute surplus. Also, it is important to help each other through the crisis and that is why the companies in the potato sector give a tasteful appreciation to the people who work in the vital sectors."
But this is capitalism at work. The potato sector was overproducing, and we were over-consuming and wasting. And now, while food banks are complaining of a lack of stock, the potato sector is still looking to get rid of its surplus without giving it to those in actual need.
- Is the current affordability of food, which depends mostly on a system of cross-border exploitation of economically impoverished lands really what we want to keep as we exit the lockdown?
- Have we ever been mindful enough of what we eat? And by that I don’t mean our nutritional intake, but rather: who does the growing, who does the harvesting, who does the transport, before it faces us from a supermarket stand after we´ve done that mildly annoying routine of waiting in line?
Repeat after me: I am aware of the bodies of others. The bodies that lean down, or stretch up, bend over and sweat to make sure I have something to eat.
I end up at the cash register:
Total: 96 Euros and 34 cents, tax included.
At the end of March, an enthusiastic post graced my timeline. An association of Dutch farmers had started an online platform listing new jobs in the agricultural sector. Each of these Western countries was considering hiring locally, yet it seems the wish to help the country hasn’t yet extended to heavy physical labor. A friend of mine, knowing of my love of gardening, decided to tag me while posting links towards jobs for picking crops, selecting and packaging, thinking I might require a fun and also useful job.
Offer&Ask Platform for picking crops, selecting & packaging:
An enrollment platform directed by the farmers' organization LTO:
My questions at the time:
- Who would I be replacing?
- Would I be getting protection?
- How much would I be paid in light of the newly added risks?
The enthusiastic post, once questioned, had been edited to note:
"Please do negotiate the terms of proper payment, reimbursement of commuting and protection against coronavirus if you want to work in the farms.”
But the new notice didn’t take into account that most actual agricultural workers have no leverage in terms of negotiating conditions. These conditions are set through local instances (labour unions and employment agencies debate and draft up types of contracts under which workers, new and old, will end up fitting). Few of these workers have access to the negotiation table. For most of them it takes years until they have access to any contractual stability, with actual contractual leverage a downright impossibility. This is just the world we were living in before the crisis.
One of the most valuable lessons that this crisis has taught all of us however, is that many of our jobs can be done from home. Some are superfluous and the majority of vital professions, among which agricultural ones, deserve much more than they’re being paid, and they certainly deserve more respect translated into rights.
I believe it´s our public responsibility to advocate for that, once we realize the chain of actions that we´re tied up into. And as time seems to stretch in an infinite line in front of us, while we wait in line and social distance from one another, we should take that time to be more mindful about the way in which we craft our new normal – from social care, to interpersonal relations, to what and how much we shop, and towards acknowledging who makes that supermarket trip a possibility.
Radical joke for added perspective:
“A capitalist is walking through his factory with a friend.
Friend asks, "What did you tell that man just now?"
"I told him to work faster", answers the capitalist.
"How much do you pay him?" asks the friend.
"Fifteen dollars a day" answers the capitalist.
"Where do you get the money to pay him?" asks the friend.
"I sell products", answers the capitalist.
"Who makes the products?" asks the friend.
"He does", answers the capitalist.
"How many products does he make in a day?" asks the friend.
"Fifty dollars’ worth", answers the capitalist.
"Then", concludes the friend, "Instead of you paying him, he pays you thirty-five dollars a day to tell him to work faster".
"Huh", and the capitalist quickly adds, "Well, I own the machines".
"How did you get the machines?" asks the friend.
"I sold products and bought them", answers the capitalist.
"And who made those products?" asks friend.
To which the capitalist can only respond—to his friend, but also to the media and to the schools—"Shut up! He might hear you".” via Bertell Ollman
Our New Normal is made possible in part by AFK (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).