Seasonal workers could be short because of corona: waiters in the field for the harvest?

Seasonal workers from Poland or Romania, for example, could stay at home because of Corona, warns the farmers’ association. Can restaurant waiters replace them?

Could this waitress also stab asparagus? Photo: Robert Michael/dpa

The German Farmers’ Association expects a shortage of harvest workers from abroad because of the Corona virus pandemic. "We fear that the border closures will result in a shortage of urgently needed seasonal workers and harvest helpers," Secretary General Bernhard Krusken told the taz newspaper on Monday.

It is unclear whether certain foods will be in short supply because of this. "In principle, in the coming days and weeks, the supply of basic foodstuffs to the population is assured," Krusken said. Several supermarket chains such as Aldi, Rewe and Kaufland again assured that their stores were well supplied and would remain so. When push comes to shove, goods for the now closed canteen kitchens, such as those of schools, may well go to retailers.

Vegetable and asparagus farmers are acutely affected by the labor shortage, but other agricultural sectors also have employees from other European countries, Krusken added. "In vegetable farming, we are now entering the first work peaks: Planting lettuce, cabbage, etc., and soon harvesting lettuce and asparagus. In fruit growing, the harvests of strawberries are coming up from May and of other berries from June," wrote the Arbeitsgemeinschaft bauerliche Landwirtschaft.

It is true that in 2016, according to the Federal Statistical Office, only 286,000 of the total 940,000 workers in German agriculture were employed seasonally – up to 6 months. However, especially "special crops" such as asparagus are largely harvested by foreign seasonal workers who are willing to do these physically demanding jobs for the comparatively low wages.

Helpers mainly from Romania

The German Federation of Agricultural and Forestry Employers’ Associations estimates that one-third come from Poland and the rest mainly from Romania. Several Eastern and Southern European countries have imposed travel restrictions. Poles, for example, traveling home from Germany must spend 14 days in quarantine.

German Agriculture Minister Julia Klockner therefore raised the possibility of using employees from restaurants in agriculture. "Whether those employees who unfortunately have less and less to do in the restaurant business can and want to step in in agriculture – we also have to consider something like that," says the CDU politician.

Is that realistic? "Everyone who wants to and can support the farmers is welcome – no matter what industry they come from," replied functionary Krusken. Whether such employees can replace the traditional seasonal workers, "we will see."

In the meantime, the Farmers’ Association has called on politicians to "adapt the framework conditions in such a way that farmers affected by the coronavirus can also be helped without red tape." Klockner already pledged: "We have to check which bureaucratic requirements we can downgrade during the crisis, if necessary."

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