German farms need nearly 300,000 seasonal workers

85 percent of the foreign harvesters come from Romania. Their entry into Germany is impossible at the moment. [Ververidis Vasilis | Shutterstock]

There is no shortage of food during the coronavirus pandemic, but farmers are urgently looking for seasonal workers for the harvest. The German government wants to help by relaxing employment rules and providing online placement. EURACTIV Germany reports

Under time pressure, the German Government is looking for ways to mobilise sufficient seasonal workers for the harvest. On Monday (23 March), Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet agreed to significantly loosen labour laws for harvest workers.

The ministers decided to extend the “70-day rule.” With these changes, seasonal workers may now work for up to 115 days in short-term employment until the end of October without paying social security contributions. The additional income limits for short-time work compensation and for farmers’ pensions were also raised.

The changes are necessary because the current working arrangements are not sufficient to effectively respond to “extraordinary emergencies” such as the coronavirus pandemic, said Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU).

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Europe’s ability to provide food depends on the preservation of the Single Market, agri-food stakeholders stressed in a joint statement published on Thursday (19 March) and directed to the European Commission.

3,000 job advertisements in two hours

German farmers currently fear for their harvest, since a large part of the 286,000 seasonal workers who work in fruit, vegetable and wine production every year come from Romania and Poland.

Due to border closings in the Schengen area, it is currently almost impossible to travel to Germany, even with a passport. Polish harvest workers also have to go into a two-week quarantine if they want to enter Poland again from Germany.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, at least 30,000 seasonal workers are needed in March alone, and by May the demand will increase to 85,000.

The situation is currently most urgent for asparagus and strawberries. Last year, the asparagus harvest in Germany was about 122,000 tonnes. Farmers fear that this year it will not be possible to collect the entire harvest.

The German Ministry of Agriculture is also looking for ways to attract workers from outside the industry to the fields. At a press conference last week, Klöckner gave an example of  employees in the catering industry, which is currently at a complete standstill.

In a letter to Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) on Thursday, Klöckner also suggested introducing a temporary work permit for asylum seekers: “Some people from safe countries of origin such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia or even Senegal could certainly be interested in working in agriculture.”

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To match farmers with voluntary seasonal workers, the Ministry of Agriculture launched an online placement exchange yesterday (24 March). According to AFP, about 3,000 advertisements were published within two hours.

The German Farmers’ Association (DBV) also operates a placement exchange. “Everyone who wants to and can support us farmers – no matter what industry they come from,” said DBV President Joachim Rukwied.

Seasonal workers could be flown in

Together with Lufthansa, the German government is exploring the option of flying seasonal workers directly into the country. This is particularly important for Romanians, who make up 85% of foreign seasonal workers and are unable to travel through Hungary.

However, a decision on this plan is still pending. Klöckner appealed to Chancellor Merkel to discuss the issue directly with the heads of government of Eastern European countries. Tomorrow (26 March), the agriculture ministers of the EU countries will also meet via video conference.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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