The Estonian Gardening Union has sent the Ministry of Agriculture a note, asking for legal changes that would allow the farmers to alleviate the labor shortage by employing children and foreigners in less strict conditions.
The Gardening Union (Eesti Aiandusliit in Estonian), an organization of Estonian gardeners and farmers, has asked the social security tax for children who are working over the school holidays and the minimum wage requirement for seasonal migrant labor to be lowered. Estonian employers are currently forced to pay higher wages to migrant workers than their Finnish counterparts, reports Saarte Hääl.
"To our knowledge the government obliges employers to pay a worker from Ukraine 1.25 times the Estonian average wage. In Finland the same worker would get 30-40 percent less than that," said Raimond Strastin from the Gardening Union. "We wish that Estonia would make the terms equal to those in the neighboring countries, with whom our companies have to compete with in the adjacent markets."
Strastin said continuing emigration and the government's anti-immigration policies mean that farmers are faced with increasing labor shortages and struggles with harvests. Strawberry farms alone could offer seasonal employment to around 200 people, he said.
Valdis Kaskema, owner of one of the largest strawberry farms in Estonia, said that farmers would be happy to employ children over the summer season but they currently lack the incentive to do so.
"Pupils are socially secure anyway, so why do we still have to pay a 33 percent social security tax on them?" he said.
Hiring the unemployed for a short time period is also out of the question because those workers would lose their unemployment benefits.
Kaskema, who this year employed seven Ukrainians, said that the costs on migrant workers are unreasonably high. The 1,500 euros that he said he spent on a single worker per month, is not in accordance with the average wage of an unskilled laborer in Estonia.
Guido Lindmäe, who runs Saaremaa's largest vegetable farm, said that the situation is made worse by the trade networks who force the prices of local products down by stocking cheap foreign produce.
"This is good for the traders and the consumers but local vegetable farmers will run without profit and the wages in the farming sector remain low," he said. "I am ashamed to pay my employees the minimum wage but I just cannot afford to pay them what they deserve."