Even though the government initially agreed to the Conservative People's Party's (EKRE) initiative not to extend Ukrainian seasonal workers' right to work in Estonian agriculture, several Center Party and Isamaa politicians are now inclined to revisit this decision during upcoming Riigikogu discussions. Naturally, with support from agricultural producers.
The coronavirus has closed national borders. No one is likely to enter the European Union, while even Schengen members have returned to guarding their national borders. Those who are in are in, and those who are out are out, as put by Minister of the Interior Mart Helme.
Around 2,000 seasonal workers, mainly from Ukraine, our agricultural producers were counting on will probably not reach Estonia this spring. But what about 237 seasonal workers who are supposed to leave Estonia in April and 206 whose work permits will expire in May, most of whom are employed in agriculture?
Interior minister not swayed by farmers' concerns
The Estonian Farmers Confederation, Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce and recognized agricultural producers have asked the government to allow foreign workers to stay and work. A similar request was made by the Ministry of Rural Affairs.
"Estonia's food security does not depend on 300 foreign workers in agriculture," EKRE chairman, Minister of the Interior Mart Helme said regarding foreign workers whose permits will expire in April.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs' press statement from April 2 was unambiguously titled: "Foreigners who lose their job must return to their country of origin." The government had passed amendments to the Aliens Act and the Obligation to Leave and Prohibition on Entry Act the main aim of which was to ensure foreigners who are no longer employed would leave Estonia as soon as possible.
Ruth Annus, head of the ministry's citizenship and migration policy department, said on the "Aktuaalne kaamera" news program that pursuant to the Aliens Act, employers cannot extend the stay of foreign workers once their maximum allowed work time expires. Foreigners are allowed to do seasonal work in Estonia for a maximum of nine months every year.
"Estonia's food security does not depend on foreign labor," Annus repeated the interior minister's words. "During this difficult time when Estonians need jobs and where new unemployed are registered every day, we must support Estonian residents. They need to have the opportunity to fill vacant positions."
Salary of 1,600 not enough to attract milkers
Agriculture executive Lembit Paal who was elected farmer of the year in 2016 sees matters in an entirely different light. "For some reason, people think that the profession of a farmer is so primitive every cashier, lathe operator or anyone fired from somewhere else could do it. That is an incredibly primitive understanding of modern agriculture," Paal told "Aktuaalne kaamera" in an interview. "I sincerely believe people don't want to come and work in the country."
Ruth Annus said that Estonia had over 36,000 registered unemployed as of February 29, 1,500 of whom had previously worked in agriculture of animal husbandry.
Correct. However, how many of them had told the Unemployment Insurance Fund they wanted to continue working in the sector? Just 97.
Owner of the Külmsoo Farm in Põlva County Raivo Musting (farmer of the year 2001) told the Põllumehe Teataja magazine last October: "We are looking for a milker, salary €1,600 a month, two days off every four days. Nothing, no one even calls."
Back then, Külmsoo Farm had two Ukrainians in charge of milking its cows and another one driving a tractor. The owner fixed up the old Kiuma schoolhouse to put them up. "They work diligently because they have something our people lack – the desire to work. They want to make money. I have a milker who sends everything they make home, leaving themselves with €150 a month. They show up asking for work even on their day off," Musting said.
"Ukrainians are brilliant milk cows for the Estonian state – they start paying taxes on the first euro they make. I've told politicians not to prohibit them from coming here. They are hardworking!" the farmer said.
Supporters of flexibility in the Riigikogu
The Riigikogu is set to discuss amendments to the Aliens Act as part of the government's coronavirus cluster bill on Monday.
Chairman of the Riigikogu Rural Affairs Committee Tarmo Tamm (Center) served as rural affairs minister in Jüri Ratas' first government (2016-2019). He promises a serious debate over allowing foreign labor in agriculture.
"We cannot just pull the plug – tractors cannot be left idle or cows to go unmilked," Tamm said, suggesting he does not support getting rid of foreign labor.
This problem is not exclusive to Estonia. Tamm is looking at Finland where farmers are worried by the absence of 16,000 seasonal foreign workers that could result in vegetable shortages and high prices.
"We need to be flexible. The work permits of people already in Estonia could be extended," Tamm said. He promised to say as much at the committee sitting on April 6.
Chairman of the coalition Isamaa party, Vice President of the Riigikogu Helir-Valdor Seeder who served as Estonia's agriculture minister in 2007-2014 agrees – albeit more cautiously.
"A crisis is an extraordinary situation in every way. Policy needs to be flexible so we would not make the crisis worse ourselves," he said. "Foreign labor in agriculture is definitely something that needs to be discussed in the parliament, and the proposal to extend their work permits if they have residence permits is worth considering."
Seeder added, however, that the people of Estonia must be open to retraining and moving from one sector to another in the long run because a crisis forces everyone to change their habits.
The Riigikogu Legal Affairs Committee first discussed the so-called corona cluster bill on April 2 and sent it to the floor for its first reading. "This will leave two or three days for proposals to amend," committee chair Jaanus Karilaid said, seemingly asking himself: "Could foreign seasonal workers who are in Estonia legally be given an extension on their work permit?" And answering: "Seems like a sensible decision in the current situation."
When Mart Järvik was forced to resign as rural affairs minister last year after losing the trust of the prime minister, EKRE leaders offered the portfolio to experienced MP Merry Aart who turned it down, causing Arvo Aller to move into the Ministry of Rural Affairs.
Aart now said, emphasizing that he is strictly expressing his personal opinion, that agriculture is not so primitive that just anyone could work there. "I would not be greatly opposed to extending foreign workers' permits in agriculture during the crisis to give us time to switch to our own labor, train people."
Editor: Marcus Turovski