Germany lifts ban on foreign workers to salvage harvest
Food security fears lead to easing of rules and offer of flights to avert labour shortage
Seasonal workers heading to Germany wait outside Cluj airport, Romania. Photograph. Photograph: Raul Stef/Inquam Photos via Reuters
Germany has launched special flights to bring in tens of thousands of seasonal workers from eastern Europe amid fears that travel restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic could badly disrupt farming and affect food supplies.
Hundreds of Romanians were on board the first such flights on Thursday and Friday, and daily services are scheduled from Romanian airports to several German cities throughout April and May.
Germany hopes to attract 80,000 farmhands from Romania and nearby countries, having lifted a ban on the arrival of workers from abroad over concerns for the imminent asparagus harvest and other produce that will soon be ripe.
About 300,000 foreign workers usually pick fruit and vegetables in the German season, and farmers warned that a labour shortage caused by the Covid-19 outbreak could lead to a smaller harvest, higher food prices and planting delays.
“This is important and good news for our farmers because the harvest does not wait. Sowing cannot be postponed,” said federal agriculture minister Julia Klöckner.
“To provide consumers with sufficient and high-quality local food even during the coronavirus pandemic, farmers have to rely on the help of seasonal workers from abroad – these are specialists in their field.”
The BOGK association of German fruit and vegetable processors had warned: “What is not harvested cannot be processed ... supplies for the population would no longer be secure from summer 2020.”
“We certainly need our specialist workers from countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and other countries,” the group added.
An online system has been created to match foreign workers with German farmers, and the Eurowings airline – a subsidiary of Lufthansa – has a “harvest helper” page on its website where Romanians can register for flights.
Officials in Germany say foreign farmhands will undergo health checks and work separately from other employees for the first fortnight, and they will be expected to observe distancing rules at all times. Their accommodation has been adapted to provide more space for all occupants.
Ms Klöckner called it “a pragmatic and goal-oriented solution which meets two justified requirements: protection from infection on one side and securing the harvest on the other side.”
The first workers’ flights from Cluj airport to Germany on Thursday saw up to 2,000 people cram into the airport car park before being allowed into the terminal, in what Romanian prime minister Ludovic Orban called an “unacceptable” breach of current health guidelines.
“What should we do? Die from hunger before the virus ends or what? We’re not dying from the virus but from hunger,” one worker, Vasile Stan, told Romania’s Mediafax news agency at the airport.
“I’m scared of catching the virus,” said Loredana Bica, another worker. “But I’m more scared of having nothing to put on the table for the kids.”