When there’s plenty of work in the fields, but few workers

Workers cultivating asparagus in the eastern canton of St Gallen on April 1, 2020. Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

Swiss farmers are having to improvise to find enough labourers during the coronavirus pandemic to help with the harvest, and – as one example illustrates – are finding creative solutions to get their produce to market. 

This content was published on April 13, 2020 - 11:00

Asparagus shoots are still covered with earth on the Jucker farm in Rafz, a small town northwest of the city of Zurich. The vegetable shoots are waiting for migrant workers to harvest them, however this year many of the foreign labourers may not arrive. 

“Many of them are still in their countries, waiting for the borders to re-open,” says Nadine Gloor, head of marketing for the farm, which employs 150 people, either for the asparagus and pumpkin planting and harvest, in the farm’s fresh produce shops, or in its two on-site restaurants.  

Swiss agriculture depends on foreign labour, originating largely from eastern Europe and Portugal. According to statistics from the Federal Office for Migration, the agricultural and forestry sector employed just over 18,000 seasonal workers from abroad last year. 

Usually, at this time of spring, there are 80 people from Poland and Romania already in the fields picking asparagus and strawberries on the Jucker farm. 

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However, the coronavirus crisis has seen borders close across Europe, including those between Switzerland and its neighbours, making it impossible to travel from eastern or southern Europe to the alpine country. Even if they could leave home, many foreigners like migrant workers from Portugal would be faced with having to self isolate upon their return. That rule has been in force in Portugal since March 20. 

However, the Jucker operation has been fortunate since, Gloor says, some of the workers were already in Switzerland when the borders closed, and many Swiss residents have been responding to the job ads placed on the farm’s websiteExternal link, or a website especially created by Switzerland’s fruit and vegetable producers to recruit farmworkers, in cooperation with an online recruiting agency, CoopleExternal link. Normally active in matching job seekers looking for flexible hours or temporary work in gastronomy, aviation or event management, or other sectors of the economy which have largely shut down, Coople is now pointing people in search of jobs towards agriculture.   

According to official data, the health crisis lockdown has caused a spike in unemployment and so-called short-time work. A quarter of the entire Swiss workforce has been affected. 

However, farm work is not appealing because it is manual labour and requires long hours (55 per week) for low pay (CHF14.50 per hour). “It needs to be done in the sun and rain, in all weather,” says Gloor. “The fieldworker must also have the skills to know how to plant the asparagus without spoiling it, so we can’t take everyone who applies.”  

The agricultural sector hopes the federal government will help to make the work more attractive.

“We expect the federal government to take the necessary measures to subsidise agricultural wages in line with market conditions in this exceptional situation. This would enable the 315,000 people currently affected by short-time work to benefit,” said Viktor Calabrò, president of Coople, in a trade magazine on March 25. 

Special health measures, including social distancing and regular handwashing, are also being enforced on Swiss farms as in other industries where employees must still work on site. 

“If the lockdown continues much longer, farmers will have to find a different approach to manage the harvest,” said Loïc Bardet, head of Agora, a farmers’ association in French-speaking Switzerland. Bardet made the comment ahead of the Swiss government’s decision on April 8 to extend the lockdown at least until April 26.  

But the federal authorities don’t see any risk to the country's food supply. “I don't believe there will be a shortage of seasonal farmworkers. It is too early to say how the situation will evolve,” countered Florie Marion, a spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Agriculture, pointing out that the government has launched several measures to help the economy, including the agriculture sector. Among them, temporary work visas can now be granted for six months, up from the previous three. 

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