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Strawberry farmers concerned about lack of workers as harvest approaches

Strawberries growing in Tartu County.
Strawberries growing in Tartu County. Source: ERR

Strawberry farmers have recently expressed concerns there will be a shortage of labor and fruit will rot in the fields without the help of foreign workers this summer. However, Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller (EKRE) believes local people should be hired instead.

The strawberry harvest has become a topic of concern as the season is about to start and farmers have not yet found enough pickers. Usually, they would rely on foreign workers who come to Estonia on a short-term work permit, mostly Ukrainians and Belarusians.

However, after the government closed the country's borders to stop people entering from the third countries during the emergency situation - including foreign workers with valid short-term permits - farmers have become increasingly concerned about the lack of agricultural workers for the upcoming summer season. There are rumours the borders could reopen on June 15, although this has not been agreed by the government yet.

The government has said because unemployment is rising in the country Estonians should take the jobs on offer, rather than employers bringing in new foreign workers.

Last week, several strawberry farmers were interviewed in the media, saying their fruit is likely to go unpicked and go to waste, as they cannot find new workers to employ. Farmers have previously said many of the newly unemployed lack the skills or stamina to work in the fields.

Members of EKRE, such as speaker of the Riigikogu Henn Põlluaas, have said farmers need to stop relying on cheap labor, while the farmers have said they already pay fair wages. Arvo Aller said he is convinced enough workers can be found domestically.

Tartu County strawberry growers Paavo Otsus and Tõnu Oks told ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) on Sunday they usually employ 100 seasonal workers each summer.

Estonian strawberries being sold at a market in Tallinn. Source: Priit Mürk/ ERR

Otsus, head of Aran Farming, said: "Currently there are about 20-30 people here. We are a bit behind with weeding and planting work, which should have already been done. As movement of labor is limited, some work has not yet been completed."

Oks, the owner of Marjamaa farm, said: "There are still a lot of people missing."

Oks and Otsus both said that although it is possible to earn €200 to €400 a week picking berries, Estonians do not want to do this type of work. There are applicants but few are likely to stay in the job once reality bites.

"There is always the misconception that picking berries is a laugh, and fun," Oks said.

Berry growers are also convinced many applicants are only applying for jobs because they do not want to lose their unemployment benefits and need to be seen to be actively looking for work. They say there is no such problem with the Ukrainians who do not mind working in all weathers or living in rural areas.  

Otsus said: "The situation is critical for me because we are already expecting the first berries next week, and if nothing changes, up to 70 percent may not be harvested which will rot in the fields."

Otsus added customers should not be concerned about being able to buy strawberries this summer as neighbouring countries, such as Latvia, will be able to gain a competitive advantage and sell some of their surplus on the Estonian market.

Last Wednesday, Elke Lillemets, the head of the Estonian strawberry growers' association (Eesti Maasikakasvatajate Liit) and owner of Marjamaa Farm, said ministers should visit the strawberry fields themselves, to see why there is a need to admit foreign workers.

"If you don't believe what we're talking about, come and see. Here's our whole team, look at those fields and how much help we're missing," Lillemets said on ETV's "Ringvaade" (link in Estonian). Lillemets said her farm requires approximately 30 more workers for the summer season.

Lillemets said Ukrainian workers should be referred to as skilled labor instead of cheap labor, adding the average berry picker receives a salary of about €1,000 per month. The national average wage towards the end of 2019 in Estonia was just over €1,400 per month, while the median wage is below €1,200.

Rural affairs minister Arvo Aller noted the decision not to admit foreign labor stems from the threat to the health of the Estonian people, as incomers may bring coronavirus with them.

Lillemets said it is possible to perform health checks and necessary tests at the border, and an employer could also quarantine employees if necessary.

Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller (EKRE). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Over 100 candidates per strawberry picker position in Estonia

AK also reported on Sunday that the Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) said there are 3,500 unemployed people who are interested in working in agriculture at present. Currently registered unemployment is over 50,000.

Jane Välja, head of the Tartu County department of the Unemployment Insurance Fund, said the problem could be that berry growers do not make enough effort to find labor, exclude target groups or are not flexible enough.

On Monday, job portal CVKeskus.ee reported there were more than 100 applicants for each strawberry picker position advertised on its site.

The most sought-after seasonal job is currently strawberry picker and farmworker, with an average of 116 applications per position. The second-most popular seasonal job is horticultural worker, with an average of 83 job seekers per position for this role.

More than 40 CVs have also been submitted per job offer for customer service representatives and farm workers during the summer season

The competition for the job of delivering strawberries, or other berries, by vehicle, is slightly less desirable, with an average of 19 job seekers applying for this type of job. Tractor driving positions see an average of 15 applications per post.

Henry Auväärt, head of marketing at CVKeskus.ee, said: "When it comes to seasonal work, it is very important that the employer clearly states the conditions offered in the job offer. For example, 38 percent of seasonal job offers have a salary figure publicly displayed, which simplifies recruitment and helps to find suitable seasonal workers quicker.

"Employers are offering a salary between €600 and €1,200 average pay for strawberry pickers, but there are also higher salary offers out there."

In total, there are currently more than 100 seasonal job offers on the CVKeskus.ee job portal.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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