Thüringen, Germany. Around 150 people per farm should have arrived this year, as every year, for the harvesting season in the strawberries and asparagus fields. However, 2020 will be somewhat different: there are only 40 migrant workers for a 40-hectare strawberry field – less than one third of what is needed. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, which hit Europe hard at the beginning of the year, the borders of Germany and many countries are partially, if not entirely, closed – an incident without precedent since the unification of Europe in 1951.
Most field workers in Germany are immigrants from East Europe. People from countries such as Romania and Poland travel to farms located in South and West Germany for the harvest season. The reason for this is simple: the minimum wage per hour in Germany law is around 9.90 euros per hour, much higher than in countries like Poland or Slovakia.
With the harvesting normally lasting from March to September, the immigrant workers stay at the farms and when the season is over, they have gathered enough money to live for the rest of the year with their families in their home country, a phenomenon similar to the US and Latin America.
These practices are not rare and absolutely not illegal. But with the borders partially closed, they have become more and more difficult. Lots of bureaucracy has emerged related to health and travel insurance for immigrants, which was not a problem before the pandemic.
A similar situation is developing in Latin America. The US consulate in Monterrey, Mexico will be closed until further notice, reducing the number of legal field workers to a minimum. And the problem goes beyond harvesting. The import of fruits and vegetables from Mexico to the US has also been reduced by fear of a Coronavirus infection, which has already happened, involving a Mexican truck driver delivering fruits to USA. The patient was admitted to the hospital in a city from the north of Mexico, unleashing an outbreak of Coronavirus at the same health institute,which has so far carried a death toll of 2 doctors and at least 2 other individuals.
The economic scope of this pandemic in the agricultural sector is very difficult to estimate. But it is quite clear the problem involves multiple factors. The prices of harvesting products in countries like Germany, Italy, France, and the U.S have increased, and will likely continue to do so. But how will agribusinesses face such a problem?
Germany is already looking for solutions. Many farmers are bringing in international students, hiring them for less than 12 hours per week, which is the maximum permitted for an non taxable job in Germany. Refugees are also getting involved in the task with the same number of hours per week, which is expected to help with the social integration of refugees, who in most cases are not allowed to work without a language and integration course.
In the US, the State Department is allowing the return of skilled migrant workers who have previously worked in the country, provided that they do not require an in-person interview for the renewal of their work permits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has stated that it is working with the State Department to ensure that food supply chains are not overly disrupted.
But farm owners are preparing for the worst. Although agriculture workers are considered essential, the shortage of migrant workers will hit hard, especially during the critical spring harvest season for products like squash and blueberry. “It is a reality. If there are not workers, there will be crops that will go unharvested, and that has a ripple effect throughout this economy, and it will affect the consumers of this nation,” said Gary Black, Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture, in an interview with CBS News.
This unprecedented situation has had far-reaching effects across the global economy, and for countries that rely heavily on migrant labor in the agricultural sector, the consequences could be dire. But with effort and cooperation, governments may be able to find ways of adapting to the situation that will lessen the effects of the crisis, and hopefully safeguard against this time of problem in the future.
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