A €600,000 wage support measure for agricultural enterprises is about to be launched to help with the berry growing sector to hire people who have lost their job. Farmers desperately need more labor and have asked for foreign workers to be let into the country from June 15.
The scheme has been launched by the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Up to 750 unemployed people may be hired with its help, according to estimates.
Support will be paid to employers active in berry, nut or fruit growing who hire a person registered as unemployed who has been unemployed for the past three months or has engaged in temporary work for less than 30 days during that period.
The size of the support per month is 50 percent of the gross wage paid to the employee, but no more than the national minimum wage, which is €584 this year.
The support is paid during a period for up to three months per employee. It will only be paid only for the months for which the employee has been paid a remuneration taxed with the unemployment insurance tax.
Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) said in a statement on Thursday: "The field of agriculture has found itself in difficulty finding workers in the spring and summer of 2020 due to the restrictions on the movement of labor stemming from the COVID-19 crisis, whereas simultaneously unemployment has increased everywhere in Estonia.
"The wage support to be made available will enable companies engaging in berry growing to hire local labor on more favorable terms, while on the other hand offering to the people left without a job due to the crisis a possibility to do seasonal work as long as they have not found a new permanent job."
Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller (EKRE) said the wage support enables businesses to pay more competitive wages without significantly increasing costs for the businesses.
"I hope this measure will help to find necessary seasonal workers for berry growing businesses," Aller said.
The application period is expected to open on July 1, after the terms of the measure have been formally endorsed, and the measure will be in effect until the end of 2020. Unemployed people eligible for the measure will have been hired on June 1 or later.
Farmers demand foreign labor be let in from June 15
Representatives of Estonian farmers sent a letter to Prime Minister Juri Ratas (Center) and members of the government ahead of Thursday's government meeting, demanding that foreign labor be allowed to enter the country again from June 15.
The letter says that even though negotiations have been held "in the silence of offices" already for a couple of months and a public discussion has been going on for weeks, the government has not heeded the farm sector's call and permitted the only possible solution for the workforce crisis.
The farmers say that representatives of farmers met with Ratas on May 27, receiving a promise from the head of government to help and search for a solution for farmers' workforce problem.
"There is no solution to date, and if it is postponed beyond next Monday, June 15, we will be in an extremely difficult situation. Valuable strawberries will be left rotting in fields. Promises hold no worth today anymore. We need rapid decisions and actions," the farm sector representatives said in the letter.
The letter points out that the move would cost nothing for the government and the farmers are not asking for money.
"We are asking for the right to do our job with the helpers who are prepared to help us. The sensible countries of our region are doing it. Finland increased the number of Ukrainian seasonal workers first from 1,500 to 4,500, and then from 4,500 to 9,000. The Finnish government also opened their borders to the workforce from Estonia. Because the Finnish government understood that this workforce is needed. Why doesn't our government understand the concern of its business operators?"
The farm sector representatives also pointed out in the letter that according to statistics from the tax authority, Estonia's rural enterprises paid more money to the state in labor taxes in the first quarter of this year than in the same period last year despite a reduction in turnover caused by the crisis.
"What indeed are you fighting against, fending off workforce?" the letter asks.
"Why do not members of the government believe the assessment of the minister responsible for public health that health risks related to foreign labor are not an obstacle to permitting controlled cross-border movement?"
The letter points out that the domestic measures for easing workforce shortage promised by the government are either still being prepared or will take effect in the fall at the earliest. It says that, therefore, the alternative solutions currently being talked about will not help alleviate the problem of seasonal labor for the agricultural sector this summer.
Editor: Helen Wright