SDE leader demands Helme answer strawberry farmer tax evasion claims

SDE leader Indrek Saar.
SDE leader Indrek Saar. Source: ERR

Opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) leader Indrek Saar wants to grill finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) on allegations he made last week that Estonia's strawberry farmers may be engaged in tax evasion, in the latest round of a war of words surrounding potential labor shortages as strawberry picking season arrives.

"Last week, the finance minister accused strawberry farmers of potential tax crime, effectively threatening them with repercussions," Saar said Monday, BNS reports.

"This is an unforeseen statement in a democratic country," Saar added.

"One cannot but get the impression that the minister is planning a political retaliation for farmers having dared to ask the government for help in solving the issue of labor shortages. We want to ask Martin Helme in person what is he planning against strawberry farmers, and what instructions he has given to the tax authority," Saar went on.

Minister of Finance Martin Helme said at a government press conference last week that he is asking the Tax and Customs Board (MTA) to look into the payment of labor taxes by strawberry farmers.

Helme said that although strawberry farmers allegedly pay wages in the thousands of euros, when looking at companies' annual reports, he has noticed that money paid in labor taxes stretches only to the hundreds or so, meaning either strawberry farmers are exaggerating the labor shortage or have not been paying their tax bills in full.

Helme said he is to meet with the MTA leadership this week, and will ask them to look into the matter.

"If no tax has been paid to the Estonian state, this is a serious tax crime, and will not do at all," he said.

"Iit is absolutely unacceptable to attack an entire sector and deliver a blow to all strawberry farmers simultaneously."

The attacks did not begin and end with Martin Helme either, Saar went on.

"Rude and hostile statements concerning farmers from ministers, and speaker of the Riigikogu Henn Polluaas (EKRE), must come to an end," Saar said, according to BNS.

Potential shortage of labor in the strawberry picking sector revolves around the expiry of residence permits for third country nationals, many of them from Ukraine, who would be involved in the harvesting, as a result of changes to the Aliens Act ostensibly sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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