Farmers struggle to find workers as coronavirus stems migration

At this time of year, Matt Stanton is normally preparing to welcome 70 to 80 Romanian seasonal workers to harvest asparagus on his family farm in Kent, in the south-east of England. This year, he expects seven.

Farmers in the world’s wealthiest countries face a similar problem as the coronavirus epidemic reduces international travel, disrupting the established annual flows of hundreds of thousands of people from the poorest countries to harvest food.

Travel restrictions have reduced seasonal migration at the same time as farmers prepare for harvest, at a time when storage and a severe economic downturn have put pressure on food producers in many countries.

“We will just have to do what we can… If you cannot harvest, you will lose this year’s harvest,” said Mr. Stanton.

The problem is acute in Europe, where the United Kingdom, France and Germany are all struggling to recruit local workers, including students and licensees from ravaged industries such as the hotel industry. But the timing of the epidemic left little room for the agricultural industry to establish new recruitment routes, while some potential workers may shy away from manual labor.

Laura Wellesley, researcher at Chatham House, said, “One of the big concerns is that we will see significant labor shortages along the supply chain. If we see a shortage of migrant workers, then you see a real shortage of supply. “

In France alone, 200,000 workers are needed in the next three months to bring in crops like strawberries in the Loire Valley and asparagus in Alsace, according to FNSEA, the national farmers’ union. About 800,000 are needed for the entire harvest season; normally about two-thirds come from abroad, including central and eastern Europe, Tunisia and Morocco.

Germany generally has around 300,000 seasonal workers from eastern Europe, a majority from Romania and others from Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary, according to the DBV, the German farmers’ association. In the UK, some 70,000 to 80,000 workers arrive each year, including many from Romania and Bulgaria, to pick fruits and vegetables.

But the European Schengen area has banned external visitors for 30 days. Within the bloc, Germany announced Wednesday that seasonal workers will be banned until further notice. Austria, Hungary and other countries have closed their land borders, blocking land routes from Eastern Europe.

Even where workers can travel, a fraction of regular flights and buses are available, while many are afraid of getting the coronavirus or being prevented from returning home when their work is done, the farmers said.

Christine Lambert, head of the FNSEA, said that the union had already received reports that French farmers had uprooted and thrown fields of asparagus due to a lack of labor to harvest them.

And it’s not just a European problem: the United States has limited seasonal visas for Mexican agricultural workers and their farmers face similar problems, while China, where the outbreak started, is also struggling with labor shortages after restricting internal displacement.

“Every first economy in the world is used to workers from other economies picking their produce,” said Ali Capper, chairman of the National Farmers ’Union Horticultural Council. “What you are talking about is a major societal change.”

Echoing the rhetoric of World War II, the Country Land & Business Association in the United Kingdom called for an “army” of new agricultural workers. Germany called the unemployed to work on the farms, while the French Minister of Agriculture Didier Guillaume launched a rallying cry to what he called the “ghost army” of France of the unemployed.

“I tell them: join the great army of French agriculture. Join those who will allow us to eat in a clean, healthy and sustainable way, “he said on BFM TV on Tuesday.

Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of UK charity Concordia, said a call for applications had sparked 8,000 expressions of interest, including journalists and a professional rugby player. Another recruiter, Pro-Force, is in talks with hotel chains that have suspended operations.

But many workers in wealthy countries are not used to hard physical labor often done at minimum wages or by the piece. Luc Barbier, a representative of the National Federation of French Fruit Producers, said his farm needed 80 workers each season but had to hire around 150 to deal with attrition.

“We start at 6 or 6:30 am and work eight hours outside in the rain or the good weather,” he said. “Many people come for a few days and then stop. Some even told me that they prefer to perceive unemployment [benefit]. “

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Governments start to get involved in recruitment: French unemployment agency created a website to link farmers to workers and told people they could still receive benefits or make money if leave, while bringing additional income to agriculture. The British government has declared agricultural workers to be “key workers” in the midst of the pandemic and is in daily contact with agricultural unions.

As the peak harvest season approaches, the problem becomes more pressing. Some strawberry producers in the UK are withdrawing the polytunnels commonly used to speed up ripening while looking for additional labor.

Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said: “If [the crisis] drags on in the summer, this can be a huge blow. “

Xavier Mas, a strawberry farmer in southwest France, is fighting without a family of Moroccan workers who have been prevented from helping this year. He said: “We can manage for now, but if someone stops or the weather warms up – which makes the fruit ripen faster – it will be a disaster.”

Additional report by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Daniel Dombey in Madrid

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