The Employers' Confederation and the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry support the demand made by farmers to the government to admit foreign agricultural workers to ensure Estonian food security with domestic products. Unions believe the jobs should be offered to Estonians first.
"We will not be able to handle this situation with only the Estonian workforce," the organizations said in a joint statement.
"Keeping in mind all security measures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the government must immediately open the door to those foreign workers who cannot be replaced by local people. Estonia will survive if new clothes or shoes are not purchased, but it will be very difficult for us if fields are left uncultivated and animals neglected in the COVID-19 pandemic. This development can have a devastating effect on the agricultural sector," the organizations added.
The Employers' Confederation and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry said foreign workers, unfortunately, play a rather important role in Estonian food production. People mostly from Ukraine are doing hard and strenuous seasonal work on Estonian fields and farms, which Estonians have been reluctant to do for some time already. Replacing them with local labor only a few days before the start of seasonal work is unrealistic.
"Many Estonians who have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis receive support from both the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the government's crisis measures, and above all, they expect the crisis to end and previous employers to continue business. It is unlikely that they will rush to the fields in spring. Before closing the borders, Finland gave Estonian workers the opportunity to return to their employers across the gulf. We cannot hope that these Estonians will come to work in agriculture here," the organizations wrote.
In their view, the Police and Border Guard Board should immediately resume the processing of applications for visas, extensions of periods of stay, residence permits, rights of residence and registration of short-term employment. New applications are accepted, but decisions are not made on them temporarily.
In the spring work season, which starts in April, agricultural businesses require approximately 2,000 foreign farm workers.
"While we previously talked about foreign workers as a guarantee of economic growth and a way to balance the aging of the population, now we are talking about our security," it is said in the joint statement.
Unions: Locals should be first to get work on farms
Commenting on a wish of business associations that the government allow 2,000 foreign workers into Estonia, trade unions said on Thursday that locals left without work as a result of the coronavirus quarantine should be able to go to farmers' aid in the first place.
Chairman of the Estonian Trade Union Confederation (EAKL) Peep Peterson invited Estonian people who have lost their job as a result of the quarantine or are temporarily unable to work in their job due to the suspension of services to go to the aid of farmers.
Peterson referred to an estimate by Finance Minister Martin Helme (EKRE) according to which the number of jobless people in Estonia may hit 60,000-70,000 by the end of the year.
"In a situation like this, we should look in the first place how to find employment for as many of our own people as possible," Peterson said.
The union leader said that while finding employment for everyone might not be possible, involving even a few percent of them in the farm sector should not be ruled out.
He said that even though the crisis has caused uncertainty in workers, they believe that it is a passing thing.
"This also increases the interest of workers specifically in temporary seasonal jobs," Peterson said.
Also the chairman of the Estonian independent seafarers' union EMSA, Jüri Lember, advises companies looking for additional labor to look to Estonian workers first.
"There would be people agreeing [to such work] already just in order to not have to sit at home," Lember said.
Editor: Helen Wright