Prime Minister Jüri Ratas says his government is working on solving foreign workforce issues sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, and affecting the agricultural sector in particular. As strawberry harvest season approaches, farmers fear that a lack of pickers, often drawn from non-European Union countries, will lead to produce going to waste.
"Many agricultural enterprises, including strawberry farmers, have become accustomed to using foreign labor during more labor-intensive periods, the free movement of which has now come to a halt due to the coronavirus crisis," Ratas said Wednesday evening, according to BNS, after meeting with agriculture representatives, though rural affairs minister Arvo Aller (EKRE) was not reported as present.
"The EU has closed its borders with third countries and are restricting the departure of their own citizens as well. This equates to a very difficult situation for our farmers," Ratas added.
Ratas said the government wanted to extend the right of those third country nationals already in the country as of March 17 as the pandemic developed to remain until July 31 (in fact an amend to the Aliens Act doing just this came into force over a month ago-ed.).
"The government has submitted a proposal to the Riigikogu to extend until July 31 the right to work in Estonia of migrant workers who were here as of March 17, and whose employer is mainly active in agriculture. This is the first step in ensuring that domestic agricultural products can be harvested and that businesses can continue to produce as planned," Ratas went on, according to BNS.
Agriculture a priority for government
The prime minister added that the success of rural life is a firm priority for his government.
"I am pleased that we were able to discuss issues important to the sector at today's meeting. By listening to each other and cooperating, we can find a solution to the problem of foreign labor. We are working to ensure that no strawberries are left unharvested or cows un-milked this summer."
Addressing the issue on his own social media page Wednesday evening, Ratas said that: "Agriculture is one of the areas where the coronavirus has raised urgent concerns and fundamental issues. For example, for this season, the necessary helping hands had to be found in a new way, and in future the changes in the labor market whichi will take place in the economy after the crisis must be taken into account."
"Today, we discussed with the representatives of the Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce (Põllumajandus-Kaubanduskoja), the Estonian Horticultural Association (Eesti Aiandusliit) and the Estonian strawberry growers society (Eesti Maasikakasvatajad) how steps taken during the crisis have helped, and what the governing coalition could consider in the future. It is clear that greater flexibility, swift action and peaceful cooperation will bring success. In this spirit, we also intend to continue, because we are also following the current goal of making the course of innovation necessary for economic recovery. Agriculture must function successfully," he went on.
Ratas also said that entrepreneurs must also be flexible and proactive in finding solutions to the problems.
"From June 15, healthy Schengen Area citizens will be able to re-enter Estonia, which also means the free movement of labor," Ratas continued, according to BNS, adding that it is still too early to say when the borders with third countries may be opened.
"This depends on the epidemiological situation in each country," Ratas said.
Longer-term measures could include utilizing unemployment insurance fund
In addition to short-term solutions, the state must also consider longer-term measures which would help reduce dependence on foreign workers in agriculture, the prime minister said.
Ratas added that this means the greater promotion of agricultural professions among young people, and various investments which would help companies to automate production and make it more efficient.
Ratas added that the Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) could also be called on to match unemployed people and farms in need of assistance.
The fund says there are 3,500 unemployed people interested in working in agriculture; agricultural organizations estimate the need during peak season to be approximately half that number.
Wednesday's meeting was attended by horticultural association chair Raivo Kulasepp, board member of the strawberry growers' association Elke Lillemets, Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce Roomet Sõrmus and Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder.
A previous suggestion to alleviate the situation by rural affairs minister Arvo Aller (EKRE) involved inducing Estonian students and older school-children to head for the fields in summer and fall.
Editor: Andrew Whyte