Farmers are pleased with the government's decision to allow third country nationals to come to Estonia to allow for seasonal agricultural work to be carried out on farms across the country.
On Monday, the coalition agreed third country nationals in Estonia will be permitted to enter or remain in the country for work or study.
The announcement comes as the government had been facing pressure to solve labor issues, particularly in agriculture, as harvest season arrives. Opposition parties held an extraordinary Riigikogu session on Monday morning to discuss the issue. The Riigikogu ended its sitting term for the summer break in mid-June.
Vahur Tõnissoo, board member of the Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce (EPKK), said on Vikerraadio's "Uudis+": "Representative organizations for farmers are very pleased with the government's decision today because in the morning, we still did not know whether or not we could milk 20,000 Estonian cows or should they be abandoned. The conditions are clearly set and that suits everyone, I hope."
At the same time, workers who have been here for longer than the permitted time must leave on July 31. Tõnissoo did not think of this as a problem, saying that replacements are waiting in Ukraine already.
Tõnissoo said: "The workers who have worked here for twelve months or more, they are already craving to return to their homes, homesickness is great. The workers who applied for work permits early on are waiting behind Ukrainian borders, they have not been allowed in so this change is extremely positive for all parties involved."
Speaking about salaries, Tõnissoo said: "The average wages in agriculture and dairy are rather large. That is not a problem. The Ukrainians who have worked here get the exact same amount as locals. We would not be able to hire them otherwise."
He added the requirement that seasonal workers leave the country after six months instead of the previous nine could become a problem in the future. "Strawberry and cabbage picking will do just fine with a six month cycle, but horticulture brings an average of 1,000-1,200 workers from Ukraine. If we are talking of farm work, six months will not be enough as workers need to be trained properly."
Tõnissoo said allowing Ukrainians into the country is essential because even with the increase in unemployment, Estonians rarely go to work on farms and fields.
He concluded: "The new situation will certainly change workforce structure and more Estonians will work in farms, but we can also say that we have never wished for migrant labor. It is caused by Estonians not coming to work for us."
During the emergency situation, the government closed Estonia's borders and refused to allow third country nationals to enter the country - even if they had a valid work permit. Workers who were in Estonia were not allowed to leave if they wanted to return. Permits were not extended unless workers were employed in the agricultural sector and only until July 31.
For several months farmers have complained they have no been able to find workers and that produce will rot, unpicked in the fields if the situation does not change. Strawberry farmers have been particularly affected as the harvest season started in June. Many seasonal workers come from Ukraine which currently has a higher rate of coronavirus infection than Estonia.
EKRE was particularly against allowing foreign workers back into the country and said farmers were underpaying workers, evading taxes and lying about not being able to find workers. As unemployment rose during the emergency situation farmers were told to employ Estonians instead. However, many Estonians do not want to do this work and farmers have been unable to find enough workers.
Employers' Confederation wants permits extended until end of year
The Estonian Employers' Confederation (Tööandjate Keskliit) made a joint statement to Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center), in which they asked migrant workers to be allowed to work in Estonia until the end of the year, regardless of their residence permit.
The Employers wrote in the statement: "Since finding worthy skilled workers is time-consuming and expensive, we are proposing that to solve the the issue temporarily, legally based workers are allowed to remain in Estonia until at least the end of the year, regardless of the validity of their residence permits. On the condition that the person has registered their employment and their income is equal or larger than the average Estonian wage."
It was also written in the statement that while Monday's decision helps the agricultural sector, it does not help all sectors. "Problems do not stop at agriculture, they are very prevalent in the industrial sector, construction, and on a larger scale, active companies and tax-payers. Although today's problems are most acute in agriculture, solutions should be looked for regarding all sectors."
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste