Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller (EKRE) says that Estonia requires a small amount of foreign labor, but that the workforce in the sector could be boosted from among Estonians themselves, during the current coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
Aller noted that in the current situation, where unemployment is rising at a rate of 2-3,000 newly out-of-work each week, while a certain amount of migrant labor was required for the agricultural sector, this volume was smaller than the present figure.
As to the question whether agriculture in Estonia could not function without migrant labor, claims made by several farming organizations, Aller said that this was not a misconception, noting that the coronavirus emergency situation had been a game-changer.
"No, they (farmers-ed.) certainly aren't mistaken. Until the current situation, where we have now had an emergency situation for practically a month, here were plenty of options to use third-country labor in Estonia - Estonian people went to work in Finland, and workers came to here from third [non-EU] countries. In the current situation, where all the borders have been closed, no planes are coming from Ukraine and we have no migrant workers entering."
Interviewer Priit Kuusk asked Aller whether further labor was really needed in the sector given that on the eve of the current crisis in late February, only 97 of the 36,000 registered unemployed expressed a desire to work in agriculture. Aller said that labor was required, stressing that this would be locally hired.
"They really are [needed]. I believe that Estonians want to work in agriculture, and working in agriculture could be an honor in the future, if we want Estonian food, products grown in Estonia which are fairly priced, and the Estonian people to be fairly paid," Aller said.
"Nobody's in trouble," Aller went on, when asked about how he would address farmers' confusion on the labor issue.
"We are talking about a specific situation. We have had an emergency situation for three weeks. In the future, we also want to offer farmers who involved in agriculture and horticulture possible wage subsidies. The estimated budget for this is around €4 million, and with wage support, we may be able to bring some relief during negotiations with other partners.
As to the question about the rural affairs ministry's seeming about-turn on the issue of allowing third country labor to remain in the country during the crisis, Aller said that his ministry were of the same mind, that possibilities to extend residence permits ought to remain for people already here, though noted that interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) replied to questions on this possible law change by saying that Estonians could work in Estonia.
"[I noted that] currently, with an amendment to the law in the Riigikogu, it is possible to extend residencies He replied that an Estonian could work in Estonia. This was not a 'no', it was a statement that an Estonian person would work in Estonian companies."
"An Estonian farmer could and should use Estonia own workers, and in this case are ready to come to their aid," Aller added, when pushed on the question of the interior ministry's view on whether agricultural migrant labor should remain in the country.
Editor: Andrew Whyte