Keelings and Covid-19: Reaping the whirlwind or harvest?

In face of Covid-19, agricultural seasonal workers defined as essential by EU

Dr Tony Holohan has said that the chartering of flights to bring workers into the country is "not consistent with the public health advice", when asked about the Keelings/Ryanair controversy. Video: RTE News Now

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Coronavirus has posed a particular problem for fruit and vegetable producers – crops that must be harvested do not wait patiently for public health emergencies to pass.

So as public concerns mounted over the arrival of Bulgarian fruitpickers this week, it is important to note this is an industry that cannot source sufficient manpower locally to do the work.

Ireland needs approximately 1,500 seasonal workers to pick soft fruit and vegetables over the next two months.

Defending its reliance on Bulgarian workers this week, Keelings said it had experienced declining interest in Ireland in recent years and needed to employ 900 seasonal pickers between April and October. Up to 70 per cent return year after year, it said.

Few applications

This year, the company advertised locally for staff more than two weeks ago but had received just 27 applications by last week. It received a further 13 applications on Friday.

According to the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) “probably 100 per cent of horticulture farms have some form of labour from overseas”, typically from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and, in recent years, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.

“Most of these seasonal workers have been returning to the same jobs and farms for years and therefore are already fully trained and suited to the nature of the work,” it said.

“In the past two weeks there has not been any major interest in jobs advertised in the sector. Even during the last recession when unemployment was at 15 per cent, there was very little interest from the domestic labour force.”

Farm accommodation

Those who come to Ireland supply the soft fruit sector from May to September, vegetables from June to November, and protected crops such as tomatoes from April to October. In most cases, accommodation is arranged by the farms.

On Friday, a statement from the Government said: “Seasonal workers are critical to the agricultural sector in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions, especially in the current season.”

The EU has defined agricultural seasonal workers as essential workers.

According to the IFA, Germany recently relaxed its rules and is allowing 80,000 seasonal workers into the country during April and May.

It said it was “very important to stress that the workers will be following all guidelines issued by the Government in relation to Covid-19”.

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