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Germany

German Unemployed Urged to Get Their Hands Dirty

It's asparagus time! The slogan screams from every supermarket and roadside stall. But while Germans are enthusiastic consumers, they have no desire to harvest the veg. A government initiative is trying to change that.

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Asparagus picker Anna Kocsoija: unsurprisingly not German

The annual asparagus frenzy is under way in Germany. Wooden huts at thousands of road junctions, selling only asparagus, have opened their shutters to offer foodies the delicate white stems.

But as in previous years the asparagus spring harvest is again stirring a heated controversy over the use of hard-working seasonal workers from eastern Europe who some complain are taking away jobs from unemployed Germans. The German government has responded by attempting to bring more Germans into the fields to harvest their own crops.

In a large asparagus field near the town of Beelitz south of Berlin, hundreds of workers collect the expensive white stems. Using long metal scoops, they dig them out from banks of earth and then fill the gaps with a trowel.

There is, of course, nothing remarkable about asparagus picking in Germany -- apart from the fact that the workers are often all foreigners. Farmer Ernst-August Winkelmann said that asparagus was best picked by workers from eastern Europe because Germans frequently lacked the will and perseverance for the backbreaking job.

Germans can't handle the hard labor

Erntehelfer Spargel Ernte in Beelitz

Germans don't want the back-breaking job

"Long-term unemployed Germans are no longer used to working for their money," he claimed. "Six weeks of hard physical labor appears to be so unattractive to Germans that none of them lasts the course. Also the prospect of facing unemployment again after the harvest discourages some of them."

The return of about 300,000 Poles on work permits this season has become a national controversy as many people wonder why some of Germany's approximately 5 million jobless can't do the job.

Using a carrot-and-stick strategy the German labor office has launched a campaign to fill at least 10 percent of seasonal harvest jobs with Germans on the dole. According to Edelgard Woythe, the head of the local employment office in Potsdam -- the capital of Brandenburg where 50,000 unemployed could theoretically do the job, the government was trying everything to get Germans into the fields.

Unemployed given psychological tests for asparagus suitability

BdT Spargelernte Beelitzer Spargelkönigin Christiane Eiserbeck

Beelitz's asparagus queen is happy to hold it -- but not pick it

"We've put in enormous efforts to convince people to work in the fields," she said. "We've organized group meetings every other day and even held individual conversations with candidates. Physical and psychological tests are being conducted and we've set up training sessions where people can learn how to pick asparagus."

Nevertheless, from Brandenburg's army of jobless only a staggeringly small number of 154 have so far taken on harvesting jobs. This number is even more stunning considering that jobless Germans get an extra bonus of up to 25 euros ($31.50) a day and free transportation on a bus that brings them to work and home again.

Heinrich Alt, vice president of the German Labor Office was convinced that the campaign will gather momentum after its miserable start. "The harvesting season is just beginning and we are expecting to see an increase in numbers when the strawberry and wine harvests start. I'm sure we will be able to reach the 10 percent in the course of the year."

Germans can earn between 2,000 and 4,000 euros during the six-week asparagus season, Alt claimed. If that's not enough of an incentive, he said, some of the unemployed would be made to learn the hard way -- through cuts in their benefits -- that the money they spend must first be earned.

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