CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 This topical collection aims to take stock of the state of research on a topic that has been gaining visibility for over twenty years: migrant and immigrant labour in intensive agriculture. The articles address a social category that has become more widespread in many parts of the world and that is both a category of migrants and a category of workers. This category is therefore just as relevant to an examination of the evolution of migration regimes (Martin, 2000) as it is to the assessment of the effects of transformations of productive capitalism on labour relations (Moulier-Boutang, 1998). But it is particularly enlightening for an understanding of the intersection between these issues.

2 The articles presented here thus constitute a sectoral illustration of the reflection undertaken in a previous issue of the Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales devoted to “the intertwinement of developments in international migration, changes in production systems and the reshaping of public policies” (Schmoll and Weber, 2021: 7), which aimed to highlight how immigrant labour has become “a central issue in rethinking the emergence of a new form of social relation to production, based on both the retreat of labour law and the retreat of human rights” (Ibid.: 11). Agriculture and its extensions in the agri-food industry contribute to reintroducing the economic dimension into the study of international migration.

3 This collection is therefore situated in a dual scientific tradition. On the one hand, it stems from the studies on migration in sparsely populated areas, which have developed significantly over the last fifteen years. On the other hand, it forms part of reflections on the transformations of work, which examine developments in the modes of (de)regulation of work, the increasing diversification of work situations and the resulting power relations.

International Migration and Agriculture, One of Many Forms of Migration Outside the Major Metropolises

4 While much of the research on international migration focuses on urban contexts, in the field of social sciences there has been a renewed interest in migration outside the major cities and in the countryside, particularly in countries most affected by agricultural labour mobility. Natale et al. (2019) estimate that more than 5 million international migrants live in rural areas in European Union countries, forming about 5.5% of the rural population. Thus, while this proportion is still lower than in urban areas, it is clearly increasing and, in both Spain and Italy, is correlated with the scale of intensive agriculture (Kalantaryan et al., 2021). In France, it was not until Fromentin’s thesis (2021) that the quantification, spatialisation and interpretation of the immigrant presence in sparsely populated areas of the country were established on a national scale. Within the limits of this editorial, it is difficult to give an overview of the international literature on this subject, given the growing number of publications. The question arises as to the interconnections between studies on sparsely populated areas, including rural studies, and migratory studies. Fromentin’s summary of studies and research conducted in France since the 1930s shows that the massive recourse to international migration in agricultural labour is a primary and ongoing concern that has contributed to making the migrant agricultural worker a “social figure” (Ibid.: 35) in rural areas. The large number of past and recent publications on work and workers in agriculture confirms the centrality of this figure in social science research in various academic areas (see, for example, Castracani, 2019; Corrado et al., 2017; Crenn and Tersigni, 2013; Dewitte and Vicente, 1994; Gertel and Sippel, 2014; Holmes, 2013; King et al., 2021; Martin, 2021; Morice and Michalon, 2008). Examples could also be given from Lebanon, Côte d’Ivoire, Algeria, Thailand, India, etc., bearing in mind that many situations have yet to be documented.[1]

5 The growing attention paid to international migration outside the major cities coincides with an opening up of perspectives on social situations, which are themselves increasingly varied and go beyond the agricultural worker. Thus, in addition to the diversification of the countries of origin of migrants, highlighted in France and the United States, for example (Fromentin and Pistre, 2021; Massey, 2008), research on amenity migration (Eimerman and Kordel, 2018; Mendoza et al., 2020), “neo-rural populations” (Berthomière and Imbert, 2020) and, since 2014-2015, exiles (Arfaoui, 2021; Berthomière et al., 2020; Glorius, 2017; Schech, 2014) reveals the growing social multiplicity of migratory pathways directed towards spaces hitherto little affected by international mobility. These pathways are not compartmentalised and may overlap, as evidenced by encounters between neo-rural populations and exiled people (Berthomière et al., 2021) or the workforce mobilisation of exiled people in agriculture (Lintner and Elsen, 2020). The social heterogeneity of the countryside, also observed in other societal dynamics (Coquard, 2019), appears to be increasingly linked to what the Irish geographer Woods (2007) refers to as the “global countryside”.

6 This greater consideration of the sociological plurality of migration outside the major cities is matched by increased attention to the diversity of sparsely populated areas. It is also by examining the characteristics of the areas in which migration takes place that a more nuanced understanding of the logics of migration can be developed. International migration no longer appears to be solely oriented towards agricultural production areas but is also linked to remote territories and/or small or medium-sized towns (Berthomière et al., 2021; Gardesse and Lelévrier, 2021) and, more broadly still, is embedded in transnational dynamics. Similarly, the increasing attention paid to urban agriculture also allows for the consideration of types of territories that were until recently little studied in terms of the opportunities for employment and social ascension that they offer to agricultural workers (Darly et al., 2021).

7 However, immigration outside the major cities remains more discreet, which poses challenges for research both in statistical terms and in formulating interpretations on scales of observation which are not purely local. With few exceptions, the growth of research on this subject largely relies on qualitative methods and studies conducted as close as possible to the situations examined.

8 This topical collection looks at agricultural labour from the broader perspective that is currently applied to migration outside the major cities. It takes note of the inclusion of sparsely populated areas in global societal and economic dynamics in order to revisit the subject of the role of international migration in agricultural and agro-industrial employment. How is this employment sector dependent on the possibility of drawing on migrant labour?

9 The contributions assembled here converge around the hypothesis of a strong and inevitable link between agricultural labour and international migration. The transformations of this economic sector over the last few decades are considered to be intrinsically connected to the employment of migrant workers. Far from being merely a pool of mobile, flexible and exploitable labour, the articles suggest that migration is at the heart of the development of industrial agriculture and its transformation to meet the needs of the liberal economy. The arguments presented here are consistent with the “agriculture-migration nexus” perspective (King et al., 2021), which highlights “a series of causal and co-constructive links between specialised agriculture, on the one hand, and seasonal and temporary regimes of migrant labour on the other” (Ibid.: 52).

No Agriculture or Agri-Food Industry without Migration

10 The use of migrant agricultural labour was introduced long ago: it dates back to the second half of the 19th century, as shown by the empirical study carried out by Weber (1986) in East Prussia in the early 1890s, but took off in Europe after the First World War. In order to understand it, it is necessary to take into account the different contexts, between regions where large-scale landholding has been or remains dominant, and regions where medium-sized or small-scale family farms have predominated for varying lengths of time. In many cases, land tenure structures have been profoundly transformed, as noted by Berlan (1986) in California, Hérin (2012) in south-eastern Spain, and Filhol (2020) in the Italian Mezzogiorno. Dependence on migrant labour has long left its mark. Models such as the Californian model or the Mediterranean model are often mentioned.

11 The Californian model was built within the framework of the large latifundiary estates inherited from Spanish colonisation, following the construction of the Western Railroad. The pioneers and their successors, European descendants, did not provide the necessary troops for the development of a highly intensive and specialised capitalist agriculture, which soon turned first to Chinese and then to Japanese workers. Since then, it has continued to drive systematic recourse to Mexican labour, leading to the emblematic bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico, known as the Braceros Programme (1942-1964). The crucial role of immigrant workers employed under harsh conditions, which has long been overlooked, to such an extent that it constitutes a very specific case of denial of recognition, has been documented since the 1990s, notably through analysis of the social construction of the Californian agrarian landscape (Mitchell, 1996). The Mediterranean model, found in Spain, Italy, Greece and the south of France, is also part of a complex history of reorganisation of agrarian structures and agricultural approaches, which led to the coexistence of small and largescale landowners, some regions that are highly specialised and others that are less so, and in which labour intensity and competition place labour at the centre.

12 However, this issue cannot be reduced to these two models: it is necessary to take into account vertical integration in the agri-food chain, which sees these tensions reproduced at other levels than agricultural labour, in particular packaging, preservation, processing, marketing and transport. It is therefore important to include agro-industrial labour in the reflection (see, for example, on the industrial tomato, Filhol, 2020 or Medland, 2021). The development of agro-industrial sectors has led to an increasingly exacting relationship between demand and supply and, consequently, to an increased specialisation of production regions, which structure distinct regional labour markets and thus link rural territories and urban areas.

13 The history of local farming systems is intrinsically linked to that of labour mobility. As a production activity that cannot be relocated and is highly constrained in terms of the relationship between the costs of the various factors of production, the profitability of the farm and the farm income, agriculture is highly dependent on a single adjustment variable: labour.

14 Indeed, farmers are constrained by several factors. First, the seasonality of the agricultural calendar, which is marked by peaks in labour needs that cannot be sustained throughout the year, and which force them to resort to battalions of seasonal workers. This irregularity in labour demand differs between crops, which vary in terms of the possibility of using productivity techniques that reduce the number of working hours and permanent employees. Areas such as winegrowing, tree-growing and market gardening rely much more on manual labour in the fields than others such as cereals, large-scale industrial crops or livestock farming. However, some of the latter, which are highly mechanised, can still play with this need despite the fact that it is reduced in modernised agricultural systems. In addition, the variability of physical conditions for plant growth, such as rainfall and sunshine, can increase the urgency of needs that are both difficult to predict and vital for the harvest and survival of the farm. Finally, farmers who are integrated into the distribution systems are very strongly dependent on the downstream agri-food industry and are constrained by it, not only in terms of standards (quality and size of produce to be marketed), but even more so in terms of price. Indeed, the continued concentration of the largest share of the market in the hands of a few dominant players, such as central purchasing agencies in the context of the oligopolistic organisation of large retailers, contributes to depriving farmers of their capacity to influence prices. This set of dependencies puts the temporal question at the heart of labour relations: this is what Lulle (2021) calls the “temporal fix”, which also includes workers’ personal temporalities, their control by employers and recruitment agencies, as well as the intertwining of previous experiences as reinterpreted through the prism of the condition of migrant farm worker.

15 As a result, the investments needed to meet the demands of increasingly standardised orders (inputs, seeds, out-of-season products, agricultural machinery and an ever-increasing number of health standards requiring costly equipment) make the equation difficult, bordering on impossible for some, in terms of the selling price in highly asymmetric contracts. They are therefore often left with only one margin of adjustment: payment for labour, with a high proportion of non-permanent contracts, subject to uncertainty that can become very acute depending on the nature of the work, the type of production and the unpredictability of the weather conditions.

16 The more delicate and labour intensive a crop is, and the more it is subject to dominant players in marketing, the more dependent it is on the availability of a labour pool at crucial times in the agricultural calendar, essentially harvesting or grape-picking.

17 It is therefore expected that this pool of labour will be available. This availability can take several forms. It can be anticipated for a workforce that can be predicted for a season to a greater or lesser extent. It then takes the form of an employment relationship which is most often based on a seasonal contract. However, the form of contractualisation may vary according to the context of the country or region concerned, ranging from fixed-term contracts with varying degrees of flexibility and concessions, which may include an uncertain term depending on the start and end of the harvest, to oral contractualisation in contexts with little or no regulation. In parallel to this arrangement, the use of shorter-term relationships is another alternative. For example, agriculture is a specific sector in terms of the regulation of part-time work and is characterised by greater flexibility. However, this does not exclude the use of day labourers, to differing degrees depending on the geographical context, in conditions that vary in their informality.

18 The coexistence between a degree of informality, if only in terms of the unpaid work carried out within the family, mainly by women, and regulatory frameworks, has been a constant feature of the history of agricultural transformation as it has become more specialised, intensified and integrated into agri-food industries.

In the Grip of Utilitarian Devices: A Widely Tolerated Exceptionality

19 The five contributions presented here examine several aspects of the interdependence between agricultural or agro-industrial labour and international migration. They are based on empirical studies carried out in three regions of intensive agriculture and massive recourse to migrant labour: California, the Bouches-du-Rhône in France and northern Italy.

20 First, the articles highlight what can be termed the centrality of migrant labour in agri-food production systems. The case studies concern very specific, labour-intensive and high value-added market gardening, tree-growing and horticultural production areas, which continue to be labour-intensive despite the mechanisation of certain production stages. The difficulties of preserving seasonal produce have been largely mitigated by off-ground, greenhouse production, which is subject to the day-to-day demands of the market. This undoubtedly explains the heightened pressure exerted on these sectors by large retailers, in the wake of the supermarket revolution that has revolutionised this area since the 1960s.

21 Second, the evolution of the legal framework for employment plays a crucial role, but one that is interdependent with broader regulatory systems, in two areas: the opening of markets and the selectivity of migration policies. The agricultural sector is a striking example of the utilitarian management of migrant labour, in a context of competition between producing countries (driving down wages) and competition between workers (the legal-administrative status of individuals is central). The migration control mechanisms that govern these recruitments stem from a contradiction: these workers are indispensable, but the generalised tightening of immigration policies maintains most of them in such a precarious legal situation that their vulnerability and subordination to their employers are increased.

22 The five articles make a point of historicising the situations they describe and grounding them in the extended timeframe of their transformations, between booms and crises. They highlight the fact that the political issue of creating a controlled incentive for worker mobility has long accompanied the different faces of capitalism (Rousseau, 2008). They go beyond the local context to take into account the historical dimension of the initiation and maintenance of migratory channels through agriculture: since remote recruitment involves trust, it most often affects migrants from rural areas, although not exclusively. Conversely, since it is based on a connection to fluctuating labour needs, it relies on actively maintaining links with the country of origin, or even on an injunction to return.

23 These are the aspects that give rise to particularly asymmetrical labour relations: in all the articles, subordination, exacerbated by the segmentation of status within a given company, is accompanied by serious inequalities of treatment, ranging from generalised gender and race discrimination and attributions to forms of violence that are defined as illegal. Thus, for these workers, access to rights becomes highly hypothetical, with the issue of their access to health care all the more sensitive given that their bodies are exposed to particularly harsh working conditions, while their prospects for unionisation or trade union organisation are limited.

24 The articles are presented according to a temporal logic that follows the process of labour migration. Magdalena Arias Cubas integrates the perspective of the country of origin into that of the country of arrival and shows how the devaluation of agricultural labour in the country of origin, Mexico, is linked to the parallel development of industrial agriculture in California. Her contribution is based on a study of agricultural workers from a Mixteca rural community in Oaxaca State who are employed in the Santa Maria Valley in California. She explores the overlapping factors of their vulnerabilisation: small-scale Mexican rural farming, especially indigenous farming, is undermined to such an extent by price fluctuations and the concentration of the agri-food sector, that the workers are forced to emigrate. While they are devalued in their country of origin, when they emigrate they find themselves in a situation of irregularity within a framework of extensive borderisation by the United States: although they are indispensable and in employment, they are deportable and consigned to poverty. Thus, according to a logic of dual undesirability, they maintain such close links between the two spaces that we can speak of a spatial duplication of a social reality, summarised by the term Oaxacalifornia.

25 Béatrice Mésini’s contribution focuses on the site of agricultural employment and addresses the ways in which farmers adapt to transformations in agricultural employment to explain how the use of foreign workers becomes their systematic response to these changes. She analyses the effects of the coexistence of two legal schemes governing the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers on farms specialising in tree-growing in the Crau plain. The seasonal contracts, whose long genesis she traces up to their current form as OFII contracts, which are fixed-term contracts, and the assignment contracts, which allow foreign workers, who are not always European, to be placed at the disposal of farms by temporary work agencies registered in the European Union, mainly in Spain, since the 1996 directive that provided a framework for “posted work”. This segmentation of statuses within the same farm has exacerbated existing inequalities of treatment and discrimination in an agricultural sector that is particularly affected by competition. It has resulted in two types of abuse: the first is the expansion of concealment, fraud and illegality, and the second is the strengthening of a particular form of paternalism, “familiarism”.

26 Frédéric Décosse and Emmanuelle Hellio offer a more general perspective that theorises both the dependencies between countries of origin and work and the motivations for using migrant agricultural workers, based on a comparison of their respective fieldwork. They specifically examine two contractual arrangements for the recruitment of foreign seasonal agricultural workers, the OFII contracts in the south of France and the so-called “en origen” contracts in the Spanish huertas, contextualising their two studies to conduct their comparative analysis. Based on this comparison, the article proposes and defines a common analytical tool, the temporary migration programme: a bridled, dependent labour force, which has its roots in a long history of labour importation, and which responds to two apparently contradictory objectives, one liberal, facilitating the mobility of workers, the other security-related, controlling the mobility of foreigners. These schemes therefore organise a “top-down circularity”, combining gendered attributions, superimposition of stereotypes and instrumentalisation of the domestic contexts of countries of origin.

27 The next two articles follow the above-mentioned approach of opening up perspectives, looking at what happens after employment in agriculture.

28 Anne Lascaux’s research, also located in the Bouches-du-Rhône, is set in a different temporal context: departure from blue-collar employment and the professional reorientation that follows. She focuses on Moroccan workers who have been seasonal workers under OFII contracts, sometimes for decades, but who have gradually seized the opportunity to set up as independent farmers. This change in status has proved to be a major turning point, both in their life trajectories and in the social organisation of the Provençal huerta. There are many difficulties in setting up: access to land, access to the market, technical equipment, etc. It is the gradual abandonment of plots of land with little value in a declining huerta that makes this transition to entrepreneurship possible, but in a marginal, unrecognised situation and with a necessary measure of informality. The article thus demonstrates how a situation of strong dependency can paradoxically be the basis for a biographical, sociological and territorial change of direction.

29 The article by Martina Lo Cascio and Domenico Perrotta concludes this topical collection with a foray “off the beaten track”, so to speak, i.e., into a world of agri-food labour that does not take place on farms, but in packaging plants. The perspective is thus opened to industrial and urban territories. Their study of several Italian industrially grown lettuce packaging plants shows that migrant labour is no less central to the agri-food industry than it is to agriculture. But here, foreign workers are in less precarious situations than those studied in the other articles; they have a residence permit and less deplorable housing conditions. They nevertheless face working conditions made extreme by three factors: subcontracting and outsourcing by the dominant actors to dependent companies, the “just-in-time” imperative which leads to a gradual acceptance of non-standard working hours (night and weekend shifts), and the duality of the internal organisation of work between national employees, posted workers and others.

30 This topical collection contributes to illustrating and understanding the complexity and ambivalence of the interdependence between international migration and labour in the area of intensive agriculture. Today, this nexus seems to be on a global scale, given the large number of areas involved. In addition to the long-term nature of relations between certain territories, which attest to the long-standing presence of foreign workers in some rural areas, there are recent and more unusual configurations, such as the recruitment of Thai seasonal workers in the berry harvest in Sweden (Hedberg, 2021) or Nepalese workers for the raspberry harvest in Portugal (Pereira et al., 2021). The studies presented also show the diversity of social configurations: not all migratory and professional paths are alike, there is no typical or unique trajectory of migrant farm workers, or uniform employment situation. The figure of the migrant agricultural worker is multiple. Not all of them are seasonal, there are also foreign nationals employed permanently in agriculture, and the sectoral approach adopted here illustrates the need to consider labour in a broad sense, beyond the limits of salaried employment, as a continuum of situations that can be situated between formal and informal, wage labour and entrepreneurship, etc. The potential evolutions of individual situations are also highlighted. Being or having been a farm worker in a migration situation does not necessarily mean that the future is closed; changes of direction are possible despite the relationships of domination, or even exploitation, that are consubstantial to the status of migrant farm worker.


  • agriculture
  • précarité
  • migrations internationales
  • travail migrant saisonnier
  • travailleurs détachés
  • international migration
  • precariousness
  • agriculture
  • posted workers
  • seasonal migrant labour
  • migración internacional
  • precariedad
  • agricultura
  • trabajo migratorio temporal
  • trabajadores desplazados
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Bénédicte Michalon
Director of Research at CNRS, Laboratoire Passages, Maison des Suds, 12 Esplanade des Antilles, 33607 Pessac Cedex; benedicte.michalon[at]
Serge Weber
Professor of Geography, Gustave Eiffel University/Laboratoire Analyse comparée des pouvoirs, cité Descartes, 5 boulevard Descartes, Champs-sur-Marne, 77454 Marne-la-Vallée cedex 2;[at]
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
Translated by
Katherine Booth
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Uploaded on on 23/08/2023
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