Berry growers do not pay more illegal wages than other agricultural sectors

A fruit seller at Tallinn's Central Market.
A fruit seller at Tallinn's Central Market. Source: Priit Mürk/ ERR

The Tax and Customs Board (MTA) said berry growers do not differ from other agricultural sectors when it comes to paying wages illegally and are not especially bad. Previously Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) has claimed Estonia's strawberry farmers do not pay their taxes.

The MTA said the sectors which have the highest amount of illegally paid wages, also known as envelope wages, are in areas with labor shortages and where work is not particularly skilled. This includes construction, accommodation, catering and agriculture.

Oscar Õun, head of the tax audit department of the Tax and Customs Board, told ERR while in the berry fields up to a third of employees can work without employers paying their labor taxes, it is not possible to single out this one area as a bad example.

"Inspection visits have shown that up to a third of the people in the fields can be paid envelope wages, but at the same time you don't see such a bad picture," explained Õun. He said berry growing is no different from any other area of agriculture.

Speaking about which sectors envelope wages are paid in, Õun said the more skilled the workforce is, the fewer wages are paid illegally.

"A top specialist is not ready to start working in poor conditions," he said. Envelope wages continue to be the biggest tax problem in Estonia. 

At the end of May, Minister of Finance Martin Helme said at a government press conference he would ask the MTA to look into the payment of labor taxes by strawberry farmers.

Helme said 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.

The strawberry harvest has become a topic of concern over the last few weeks 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.

The government has said because unemployment is rising in the country Estonians should take the jobs on offer and employers should not hire foreign workers.

Members of EKRE, such as speaker of the Riigikogu Henn Põlluaas, have said farmers need to stop relying on cheap labor. Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller said he is convinced enough workers can be found domestically and foreign workers may bring coronavirus to Estonia.

Farmers say they pay competitive wages, unemployed Estonians do not have the rights skills to work in agriculture and that workers could undergo a quarantine period.

Opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) leader Indrek Saar said on Monday that Martin Helme's comments had been unfortunate.

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


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Editor: Helen Wright

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