Spot checks suggest drop in illegal workers on strawberry farms

Strawberry pickers.
Strawberry pickers. Source: ERR

The tax authority and the police have both been inspecting strawberry-growing farms in selected regions of Estonia, finding a fall in the incidence of pickers working illegally.

The tax authority, whose concerns are naturally more likely to be on taxation issues found far more infringements – the police didn't find any, though its main concern will be about the legality of workers' residence in Estonia.

The main focus of the inspections fell on South Estonia rather than the whole country.

Whereas the Tax and Customs Board (MTA) has uncovered over 70 infringements in its spot checks, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), which has been doing the same, says it hasn't found a single one.

Head of the MTA's tax audit department Merilin Saare told ERR Thursday that inspections had been carried out in two regions where strawberry growing is prevalent – South Estonia and Lääne-Viru County. 369 employees were checked with 76, around 20 percent, being found in violation – all bar one of them not having been entered into the employment register.

The PPA inspected just two strawberry farms in South Estonia, checking 215 staff from 16 strawberry providers and finding nothing amiss.

Strawberry growers, who have been facing a labor shortage this year as the result of the coronavirus pandemic and government changes to the main law regulating immigration, are required to submit all employment data to the MTA's employment register.

Last year, the MTA checked 252 staff finding a third – 83 percent – in violation, so both the incidence of infringements has gone down, and the number of personnel checked, has gone up.

Nearly 60 of last year's violations came from just the one farm, Saare said.

Renet Merdikes senior commissioner at the Southern Prefecture's Border Guard Bureau, told ERR that the inspections should draw employers' attention to their responsibilities regarding third-country, meaning non-EU, labor, which includes having to register them with the police.

Merdikes said one of the commonest problems was not fulfilling this requirement, meaning it is not clear how long the third-country national has been staying in the country and thus whether they are staying illegally or not. As of Monday, third country nationals are allowed to stay in Estonia for six consecutive months, on a temporary residence permit.

The government had previously wanted to expel all those on temporary residence permits for work or study, but who currently did not have a work or study place. This had sparked protests as harvest season arrived and the new academic year approaches at the beginning of September.

Looking at it the other way round, Merdikes said that employers must cancel the contracts of those who have no legal basis for staying Estonia.

Many of those working seasonally in the agricultural sector come from Ukraine; the nationality makeup among foreign students is much more diverse.

Another PPA spokesperson Kera Virk, said the authority had found one infringement last year, which had resulted in a €400 fine for the worker and a €1,000 fine for his or her employer.

The PPA says employers must also notify it about no-shows among those contracted to work, and of cases where contracts are terminated early, for whatever reason.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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