A worker covers asparagus plants at a farm in Beelitz, east of Berlin
A worker covers asparagus plants at a farm in Beelitz, near Berlin © AFP via Getty Images

Germany has lifted its ban on seasonal farm workers entering the country, announcing that farms can bring in 80,000 people after an outcry from the agricultural lobby and warnings from the retail sector about a potential hit to food supplies.

The move, which was announced on Thursday, marks a swift reversal for the German government, which imposed a complete ban on seasonal workers only last week as part of Berlin’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. It highlights growing concern across Europe that the current lockdown measures will have a devastating impact on the agricultural sector and could leave vast amounts of produce to rot in the fields.

“This is good news for our farmers. The harvest does not wait, and neither does the sowing,” said Julia Klöckner, German agriculture minister.

Horst Seehofer, German interior minister, said: “We must keep the state and the economy going despite the pandemic. Today we managed to find a path that allows us to secure the harvest while also protecting the health of the population.”

Under the new plan, German farms will be allowed to bring in a total of 80,000 workers during the months of April and May. In addition, the government is calling for another 20,000 workers to be recruited from the ranks of the unemployed, students, asylum seekers and furloughed workers. Berlin estimates that farmers need at least 100,000 extra people to work in the fields over the coming months.

Seasonal workers from abroad will enter Germany by plane, to avoid lengthy bus trips, and must be kept separate from the domestic workforce for at least two weeks after arrival. All new arrivals will have to submit to a health check.

The shift in stance comes as a tacit acknowledgment that the measures taken by the government to secure the spring harvest so far were insufficient. Among other things, the agriculture ministry launched a website last month to match German volunteers with farmers looking for temporary help. About 42,000 volunteers have signed up so far — only a fraction of the numbers required by the sector.

The U-turn followed intense political pressure from both farmers and retailers.

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Joachim Rukwied, president of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), had urged the German government to reopen the country’s borders to eastern European farm workers as quickly as possible, warning that refugees and unemployed workers were an imperfect substitute as they often lacked the relevant expertise.

Mr Rukwied also cautioned that a shortfall in domestic fruit and vegetable supplies could not be fixed by increased imports, as farmers in southern Europe faced a similar shortage in workers. 

Rewe, one of Germany’s largest supermarket chains, had also warned about the effects of the border closure. “This does not just affect asparagus and strawberries but the total German fruit and vegetable production, which is just about to start,” a spokesman said.

Across Europe, farmers groups have warned that they will not be able to bring in the harvest without the hundreds of thousands of seasonal migrant workers who usually travel from eastern Europe and north Africa.

With the Schengen zone officially closed to outsiders until at least mid-April and border controls proliferating within the EU, many migrant workers cannot travel to jobs that they already had lined up for the spring and summer. Others have opted to stay at home given the health risks. 

Countries such as France, the UK and Spain have floated the idea of enlisting more domestic workers to work on farms. In France, the government has set up a website to connect recently laid-off people from hotels and the tourism sector with farmers; it has also relaxed the rules to allow them to collect wages on farms and welfare cheques.

But it remains to be seen whether there will be enough domestic workers to fill the gaps. In France alone, 800,000 seasonal workers are needed for the harvesting season; normally about two-thirds of whom come from abroad. Germany usually relies on 300,000 seasonal workers a year from eastern Europe, a majority from Romania, according to the DBV. In the UK, between 70,000 and 80,000 workers arrive annually, many from Romania and Bulgaria. 

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UK farmers expect an announcement in the coming days of a government-led initiative to match farm work with unemployed workers, to be called “Pick for Britain”. They have been lobbying for measures to enable furloughed workers to carry out farm labour ahead of harvesting ramping up in May.

Farming groups have also discussed with ministers the possibility of using army reservists to pick fruit and vegetables in a sign of the extent of concern over the issue.

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris

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