EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Seasonal worker


A seasonal worker is defined in Article 3(b) of Directive 2014/36/EU on the conditions of entry and stay of third-country nationals for the purpose of employment as:

a third-country national who retains his or her principal place of residence in a third country and stays legally and temporarily in the territory of a Member State to carry out an activity dependent on the passing of the seasons, under one or more fixed-term work contracts concluded directly between that third-country national and the employer established in that Member State.

In 2020, when the European Commission presented its guidelines to ensure the protection of seasonal workers in the EU in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (see ‘Seasonal workers in the time of COVID-19’ below), it estimated that the average number of active seasonal workers in the EU per year is between several hundred thousand and a million.

Background and status

In general, seasonal work is a form of temporary employment linked to specific periods of the year and sectors (for example, fruit pickers in the agricultural sector) or the tourist industry (for example, cleaners in holiday resorts). Although the situation differs from country to country, seasonal workers are often treated less favourably than permanent workers in terms of:

  • legal entitlements (for example, dismissal protection)
  • benefits that employers offer (for example, pension entitlements)
  • other employment conditions (for example, health and safety, and training)

Both EU citizens and non-EU citizens can carry out seasonal work in the EU. In the case of EU citizens, seasonal workers may benefit from Council Directive 91/533/EEC on an employer’s obligation to inform employees of the conditions applicable to the contract or employment relationship. However, the directive allows Member States to exclude from its provisions those employees with a contract or employment relationship not exceeding one month, and/or with a working week not exceeding eight hours, or of a casual and/or specific nature, provided that this is justified by objective considerations.

Seasonal workers may be characterised as casual workers, and as such Member States could exclude them from the provisions of the 1997 Part-time Work Directive on objective grounds. In contrast, the Fixed-term Work Directive does not explicitly exclude seasonal workers who work on fixed-term contracts. Seasonal workers are therefore covered by the protections that this directive provides, such as preventing abuses arising from the use of successive fixed-term employment contracts or relationships.

While acknowledging that EU economies have a structural need for seasonal work, for which it is increasingly difficult to source labour from within the EU, the Commission has expressed concern at the evidence showing that some non-EU seasonal workers face exploitation and substandard working conditions that could threaten their health and safety.

Regulatory aspects

Protection for non-EU seasonal workers

Given these concerns, the European Parliament and the Council adopted Directive 2014/36/EU on 26 February 2014 (see ‘Definition’ above); the directive determines the conditions under which people from third countries seeking seasonal work are allowed to enter and stay in the EU, and defines seasonal workers’ rights. In particular, it clarifies the following points and provides the following protections to non-EU seasonal workers.

  • Seasonal workers retain their principal place of residence in a third country, and stay legally and temporarily in the EU to carry out an activity depending on the passing of the seasons, typically in agriculture or tourism.
  • Member States must determine a maximum period of stay for seasonal workers of between 5 and 9 months in any 12-month period.
  • To be allowed to enter the EU as seasonal workers, third-country nationals must have a work contract or a binding job offer specifying essentials such as pay and working hours. They must also provide evidence that they will stay in accommodation that meets the general health and safety standards of the Member State and that the rent will not be excessive or automatically deducted from their wages.
  • Seasonal workers who are already in an EU Member State can extend their work contract or change their employer at least once.
  • Re-entry of third-country nationals who return every year to the EU to do seasonal work is facilitated.
  • Seasonal workers are entitled to equal treatment with nationals of the host Member State with regard to the terms of employment and employment rights.
  • Equal treatment with nationals also applies to certain forms of social security (benefits linked to sickness, invalidity and old age). Owing to the temporary nature of the stay of seasonal workers, Member States will not be obliged to apply equal treatment on unemployment and family benefits, and they may limit equal treatment on tax benefits and on education and vocational training.
  • Seasonal workers also have the right to join a trade union and are entitled to access to social security, pensions, training and advice on seasonal work offered by employment offices, and other public services, except for public housing.
  • Member States must put in place measures aimed at preventing abuses and sanctioning infringements. They must also provide seasonal workers with mechanisms for lodging a complaint against their employer, either themselves or through a third party.

Seasonal workers in the time of COVID-19

In March 2020, the Commission presented guidelines to ensure the protection of seasonal workers in the EU in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through these, the Commission provides guidance to national authorities, labour inspectorates and social partners to guarantee the rights and the health and safety of seasonal workers, and to ensure that seasonal workers are aware of their rights.

Recent developments

On 19 June 2020, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission to evaluate the terms of employment and the health and safety conditions of cross-border and seasonal workers, and in particular the role that temporary work agencies and subcontractors play, with a view to addressing the shortcomings of national and EU legislation.

In October 2020, the Council adopted conclusions ‘for improving the protection of seasonal workers in the EU’ who are often exposed to ‘adverse working and living conditions and the risk of exploitation’. These conclusions stated that seasonal workers must be provided with sufficient information regarding their rights and obligations, in a language they can understand. The Council invited the Commission to conduct a study on intra-EU seasonal work and assess the main challenges faced, including, where possible, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to identify the areas in which the protection of seasonal workers needs to be improved.

From June to October 2021, the recently established European Labour Authority ran its first awareness-raising campaign, ‘Rights for all seasons’, calling attention to the need to promote fair and safe working conditions for seasonal workers employed in EU countries.

Related dictionary terms

Atypical work casual worker employment relationship fixed-term work temporary agency work

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