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6th Apr 2020

Coronavirus

Coronavirus threat to EU farm seasonal workers

  • Germany could face a shortage of about 300,000 seasonal workers who enter the country every year to help with fruit and vegetable harvests, as the EU's biggest economy announced on Wednesday a complete ban on foreign seasonal workers (Photo: Gia Abdaladze / World Bank)

The restrictive measures taken by many member states to respond to the coronavirus outbreak make it difficult for EU farmers to either plant or harvest products - which is disrupting the sector across the continent.

EU agriculture and fisheries ministers agreed during a videoconference held on Wednesday (25 March) that the coronavirus crisis presents a new challenge for the agri-food industry that requires a coordinated response.

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"The ministers today called upon the [European] Commission to closely monitor and defend the integrity of the single market and to propose appropriate action where problems in the supply chain are identified," said Croatia's farm minister Marija Vučković, whose country currently holds the EU presidency.

EU ministers stressed that there will be sufficient food for European consumers and proposed new measures, including facilitating advance payments and the modification of rural development programmes.

The commission has extended one month the deadline to submit payment claims for Common Agriculture Policy subsidies, and issued more flexible state aid rules, while trying to ensure the flow of essential goods across borders.

However, the free movement of labour is a critical issue, as many agriculture sectors - mainly fruit and vegetables - depend on seasonal workers.

French minister of agriculture, Didier Guillaume, on Tuesday estimated that the agriculture sector in his country will need over 200,000 people in the next three months to mitigate the absence of foreign workers.

"I am calling on the men and women who are not working and locked indoors to join the great army of French agriculture," he said, adding that more "solidarity" is needed so that "we may all eat".

Meanwhile, Germany could face a shortage of about 300,000 seasonal workers who enter the country every year to help with fruit and vegetable harvests, as the EU's biggest economy announced on Wednesday a complete ban on seasonal workers entering the country.

However, according to the chair of the European Parliament's committee on agriculture, MEP Norbert Lins, the EU needs to secure the safe travel of seasonal workers to secure the harvest.

"I called on the agriculture ministers and the commission to introduce 'laissez-passer' [access passes] for seasonal workers" to ensure the right to travel to the seasonal workers using special busses or trains or even planes, Lins told EUobserver.

However, the NGO International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) believes that the fact that it is not always possible to guarantee 'social distancing' in all agriculture operations can also be challenging.

According to EU agriculture policy director at Greenpeace, Marco Contiero, "the general economic slowdown created by the coronavirus crisis will particularly affect small and medium food and farming businesses, who the EU should support".

"But any EU intervention must address the structural problems of our food and farming sector and ensure that they are more resilient to unexpected shocks like this pandemic," he added.

Meanwhile, MEP Elsi Katainen believes that the coronavirus crisis should make production chains shorter.

"The EU must strengthen its self-sufficiency and keep the food sector chain in order, as we cannot rely on aid from the rest of the world," she said, adding that the EU should ensure the continuity of food production in any scenario.

Fish to food banks?

Additionally, the parliament has asked the commission to amend the EU maritime and fisheries fund regulation to allow compensation for fishermen forced to stop their activities because of the pandemic.

"It is important to keep in mind that the fishing and aquaculture sectors should be considered as a quality and necessary foods for a healthy diet," said the chair of the parliament's fisheries committees, Pierre Karleskind.

"We must at all costs avoid the total asphyxiation of these sectors," he added.

Dutch MEP Peter van Dalen believes that the fish caught during this period should go to food banks, which are currently suffering shortages due to the drop in the demand - if necessary with the support of the fisheries fund.

"That gives the fishermen some compensation for their costs and at the same time, the food banks can provide very healthy food. This is how we can tackle two problems at the same time," van Dalen added.

Likewise, some MEPs from the same committees urge postponing 25 percent of the 2020 fishing quotas to 2021 - a similar initiative was taken in 2014 when the European fisheries sector was hit by the Russian food export ban.

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