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Article: Coronavirus triggers acute farm labour shortages in Europe

09 April 2020

Read below an article taken from our IEG Vu platform dated 08/04/20.

EU policymakers and national governments are looking for ways to plug a severe shortfall in seasonal workers that is threatening the harvests of fruits and vegetables.

The open borders that had become nearly self-evident in most of the EU's territory have now largely been closed as member states introduced travel restrictions to stem the further spread of Covid-19. This has left farmers in western Europe struggling to bring in the tens of thousands of seasonal workers on which they rely to pick their rapidly ripening fruits and vegetables.

The migrant labourers typically come from central and eastern Europe or northern Africa, but a lot of those willing to make the trip have now been stopped by the border closures, while others decided to stay at home out of fears for the coronavirus or to live through the lockdowns with their families.

Many EU fruit and vegetable growers are worried that this lack of manpower will force them to leave (part of) their crops to rot in the fields and lead to serious income losses this year. Crucially, the farm labour shortages threaten food supplies at their source at a time when many parts of the chain are already under pressure from stockpiling and panic-buying by consumers.

The main problems are faced by producers of asparagus and strawberries, two labour-intensive crops, according to the European Fresh Produce Association (Freshfel). The group urged EU member states on March 26 to take actions to secure the availability of temporary labour for the upcoming harvests, including by supporting the safe transport, work and accommodation of the incoming workers. Otherwise, the situation could lead to substantial food waste and put the supply of fresh produce to European supermarkets at risk, Freshfel warned.

The European Parliament's Agriculture Committee (AGRI) also raised the alarm over the issue on March 23, when chair Norbert Lins sent a letter on behalf of all members to agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski and AGRIFISH Council chair Marija Vučković. Lins called the free movement of labour a "critical issue" and argued that seasonal workers should be granted a special "laissez-passer" to travel by means of buses, trains or even airplanes. The AGRI members also called on the Commission to coordinate the necessary actions between the member states to ensure the labour supply while at the same time protecting these workers against the virus.

One week earlier (March 19), farming and food associations urged the EU executive to work with the member states to monitor the potential shortages of workers, assess the impact on production, and prepare contingency plans.

On March 30, the Commission responded to these demands by including the agri-food sector in new guidelines to ensure the free movement of "essential workers", saying that EU member states should allow the seasonal migrant labourers to cross borders. It warned that the EU's agri-food sector would face a "significant labour shortage" if they are not able to reach their workplace and this would risk disrupting supply chains. Meanwhile, national governments have also called on their own populations to help the farmers in need with the harvesting, targeting in particular the unemployed or people working in other sectors that have been shut down (see overview below). But Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of European farmers' association Copa Cogeca, expressed doubts that such people will be willing or able to replace the missing workers. Indeed, even if people would be motivated to take up such temporary roles, most of them live in urban areas often far removed from the farms that need them. The social distancing rules to prevent the spread of Covid-19 also pose challenges to transporting these people from their accommodation to the rural areas, for instance by making shared vans or buses nearly practically impossible. Such "volunteers" also have less or even no experience with the job and need some form of training for the work, which are both likely to slow down the harvesting process and lead to higher costs for farmers.

Situation in Italy and Spain

Spain, the biggest exporter of fruit and vegetables in the EU, typically has around 15,000 workers coming in from Morocco for the picking season of strawberries and other red fruits, which is already under way.

These people were again expected to arrive in the Huelva region (Andalusia) this year as part of an agreement between the two countries. But as of mid-March, less than half of them had made it after the Moroccan government ordered the closure of its frontiers to avoid a further spread of Covid-19. The lack of migrant workers in the country could also affect a wide range of other crops such as cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, possibly with a strong impact on availability and prices. To avoid these problems, Spain is now looking among its national population for workers to fill these roles and to carry out activities in the upcoming campaign, such as the thinning of peach trees, which is usually done by Polish or Romanian workers. Farm unions said they were targeting those who are unemployed due to the coronavirus crisis and the people who usually work in the hospitality sector, which has been strongly affected by the forced closures of bars and restaurants.

In Italy, the other European powerhouse of fruit and vegetable production and the EU nation first hit by the novel coronavirus, the situation has been delicate for several weeks. Many foreign workers who had already made the trip to Italy decided to return to their home countries at an early stage after the first outbreaks of the disease. According to farming association Coldiretti, the more than 370,000 seasonal workers who travel to the country each year - primarily from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland - produce more than a quarter of all Italian food. The union estimates that around 100,000 of these labourers are not in the fields this season and warned that this is putting several crops at risk. Strawberry, cherry and peach harvests are the most in danger, while growers of flowers and plants will also be strongly affected, it said.

Germans not willing to step in

In Germany, farmers employed nearly 300,000 seasonal workers last year, with most of them willing to do this hard manual labour for the minimum wage (EUR9.35 - USD10.10 - per hour) coming from Romania and Poland. The start of the asparagus harvest in the coming weeks will pose the first test for the sector in dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus crisis. Over 23,000 hectares of asparagus fields need to be harvested in the country, but growers fear many crops may go to waste this year as lockdowns have shut out the pickers on which they rely.

German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner still declared on March 24 that "the asparagus must be harvested". To ensure the necessary farm labour, she floated the idea of incentivising people who work in other sectors and are currently inactive to temporarily work on the fields, saying it is time to "consider unconventional or creative solutions". To promote this outcome, her ministry also launched a new online platform to match such people up with farmers in need. Klöckner also successfully pushed the German government to temporarily ease the 70-day time limit for harvest workers, allowing them to work for up to 115 days until the end of October without paying any social security contributions. But at the

of March, the agriculture minister had to acknowledge that Germans won't be able to replace the missing labour force from eastern Europe. The country typically welcomes 30,000 foreign farm workers in March and 80,000 by May, but this year only a fraction of that number has showed up.

"The labour situation along the entire food supply chain is under immense strain," Kloeckner said. German farmers now consider that some of their vegetables will not get harvested. Joachim Rukwied, president of the farming association DBV, said the government's measures had been insufficient and the country faces reduced supplies of fruits and vegetables and higher prices for these products.

France needs 'shadow army'

France's main farming union FNSEA also forecasts a harsh labour shortage for the harvesting of seasonal fruits and vegetables due to the closed borders. The country's farmers normally take on 200,000 seasonal workers between March and May, of which 70,000 to 80,000 come from countries like Spain, Portugal, Poland and Tunisia, it said. FNSEA has called for thousands of people to help plug this labour gap and give the sector a helping hand, addressing in particular available students, people doing short-term work and the self-employed. As in Germany, the group also launched a platform to match potential candidates with farmers.

Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume issued a similar rallying cry on March 24, asking the unemployed and the people inactive due to the confinement measures to form a 'shadow army' of fruit pickers. But it is now increasingly doubtful whether this call will be successful and able to meet the sector's needs.

UK sees even fewer EU workers

Similar ideas have been floated in Britain, where Brexit concerns had already led to a drop in EU farm workers since the referendum in June 2016. The coronavirus pandemic has now worsened these problems for the country's farmers by disrupting the flow of migrants, on which they rely, into the country. According to the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the agricultural sector usually employs around 60,000 seasonal labourers per year to complete the harvest, but just 25% of that amount is expected to arrive this year. Factoring in a 20% coronavirus infection rate, the union estimates that they will need around 80,000 workers in total to pick all the produce, saying this is a number which it "has never seen before".

The CLA warned that the labour shortages caused by border restrictions could be "devastating" for this year's harvest and called for a "land army" of local labour to step in, urging the government to encourage newly unemployed people to work on farms. The country's three main labour providers also launched the 'Feed the Nation' campaign, which seeks to recruit as many as 90,000 workers for the sector. This initiative was openly backed by UK environment secretary George Eustice, who appealed to the British citizens to fill in the ranks.

"We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people's plates over the summer months," Eustice said. "There are already brilliant recruitment efforts under way by industry and I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up."

However, only around 10,000 people have reportedly signed up to the platform, leaving many roles unfilled. Farming groups and recruitment agencies are now pushing the government for more drastic measures such as organising charter flights to fly in the agricultural workers from eastern Europe. Otherwise, the coronavirus-induced labour shortage could see millions of tonnes of crops such as strawberries, cabbages, apples, cauliflower and lettuce rotting in the fields, they warned.

The current problems could be a taste of what the country might face after Brexit is completed on December 31, unless the government will be able to bring in much more seasonal workers from outside the EU through a special scheme.

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