Global Economics

Polish Worker Shortage Threatens Asparagus


Due to government regulations, Germany's farmers are missing more than 40,000 workers from abroad, and up to 15% of the asparagus harvest could rot

It's well known that Germans are crazy about their asparagus. Each spring, every self-respecting German salivates at the thought of cramming as much of the soft white vegetable down his or her gullet as humanly possible. What's less-well-known, however, is that self-respecting Germans would never stoop to harvest the stuff himself. This year, that reluctance is turning into a problem.

According to the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, there's a severe shortage of seasonal laborers from Poland this year, and in some parts of Germany, up to 15 percent of the asparagus harvest will be left to rot in the fields. In 2005, there were almost 220,000 foreign harvest helpers in Germany. This year there are just 178,000. The shortage could also hit fruits and vegetables harvested later in the summer.

"We are missing up to a third of our seasonal laborers," Dietrich Paul, president of the association of asparagus farmers in Lower Saxony, told the Sunday tabloid Bild am Sonntag. "If it continues like this, fruit and vegetable farming in Germany is in trouble."

The problem, say German farmers, is a law pushed through in 2006 which sought to limit the use of seasonal workers from abroad and to increase the number of unemployed Germans working in German fields. Before the law, up to 90 percent of those bringing in the harvest in German fields came from Poland, Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe; the new regulation said the proportion of foreign field laborers should be scaled back to 80 percent.

Germany's continued unwillingness to open its doors completely to workers from the East means has sent many Polish workers to Great Britain, Holland or Spain, where they are allowed to work and live year round. Those countries have opened their labor markets fully to workers from new European Union members (like Poland) -- whereas Germany just extended its restrictions until 2009. Seasonal laborers can stay in Germany for four months each year.

The Agriculture Ministry has rebuffed such criticism by saying the 2006 law was negotiated with Germany's farmers, and if they need more farm help, they can turn to unemployment offices in their region. Newly released figures show the jobless rate in Germany at 9.1%. In theory, at least, some of those workers could join this year's harvest.

If they don't, Germans may have to go easy on the asparagus.

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