According to Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller (EKRE), the decision not to allow foreign labor into the country was based on the potential threat it poses to the health of people in Estonia. Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce (EPKK) director Roomet Sõrmus, however, finds that one is more likely to contract the novel coronavirus at a shopping center than from a foreign laborer working in a field.
In an appearance on ETV's "Suud puhtaks" on Tuesday night, Aller said that foreign labor cannot be permitted to enter Estonia right now due to the risk it poses to the health of the people of Estonia. He stressed that this decision is related to the currently ongoing emergency situation, and once restrictions on movement are lifted, life will go on as it did prior to the emergency situation.
"Once the borders open, all previously applicable laws will be in force," he said.
According to the minister, appropriate solutions are necessary during an emergency situation, and the current solution is in force through July 31, through which it is possible to extend the temporary work permits of foreign labor in Estonia as of March 17 for the purpose of working in agriculture.
"We're talking about the movement of labor, and in peacetime, anyone can move," he said. "We're currently under an emergency situation together with its implemented restrictions. We can make exceptions with Finland, which was also closed, but there have also been signals that this may bring with it a new outbreak in Estonia. We don't want that."
Sõrmus agreed on the show that the health of the Estonian people is important, and that health-related rules must be followed. He explained that agricultural producers likewise don't want to bring infected people to work in Estonia.
"When we bring workers in, then we have to test them and ensure that they are healthy, and if necessary use personal protective equipment (PPE), which is also what we do with people from Estonia," Sõrmus explained, adding that all countries are working on solutions for letting foreign labor in due to labor shortages.
"Just as other countries have found solutions, we must also do the same," he continued. "I believe that a strawberry field in the middle of a forest is not the primary threat to the health of the people of Estonia; we're really seeing these health threats at Viru [Shopping] Center and elsewhere, where people are in much closer contact with one another."
Ranet Roositalu, the owner of strawberry producer Joosepi Talu, said that he currently has five workers to work a 30-hectare field, but is actually in need of some 120. Just eight people have applied through the Unemployment Insurance Fund to work at his farm for the summer season, and maybe a couple dozen more via other employment portals. He noted that he should know by June 1 at the latest how many people he will have to come pick his strawberries.
Roositalu explained that while there is some interest, people from Estonia largely want to work under the table, and for short periods at a time, such as only on weekends. "With such small bites of work, we simply won't get these berries picked," he said.
Editor: Aili Vahtla