German Farmers Like Polish Workers Just Fine | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 07.04.2005
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German Farmers Like Polish Workers Just Fine

When Germany's government employment agency recommended out-of-work Germans help out with the annual spring harvest, farmers protested loudly. They prefer the harder-working seasonal workers from Eastern Europe.


Germans need not apply

"They are reliable, punctual and do good work," said Heinz Wilhelm Hechetjen, who employs 13 seasonal workers each year at his asparagus farm in Brandenburg.

He can't say the same for his fellow countrymen. A 23-year-old jobless German the local branch of the labor office sent over in recent weeks to help out with the harvest left after deciding that it was too much for his back. But at least the young man showed an interest.

"Most of (the Germans) don't even show up," said Hechetjen.

Farmers across eastern Germany have reacted in much the same way since the Federal Labor Office touched off a wave of protest when it recommended farmers start hiring long-term unemployed German workers instead of Eastern Europeans this season. Up to 300,000 seasonal workers come into the country with short-term work permits to harvest fruit and vegetables each spring.

A migration with tradition

The annual migration has deep-rooted tradition. As far back as 1873, a regional newspaper praised the seasonal workers: "The people are strong, frugal and work hard … They provide a humiliating example for our own spoiled workers, who demand much, but deliver little."

Spargelernte in der Altmark

A majority of the workers are Polish, like this woman on a field in Brandenburg

Since 1998, the numbers of Eastern European workers have grown from 195,000 to 280,000 last year.

Under new labor market laws, the government has more power to require Germany's long-term jobless workers to take on work or accept cuts in benefits. And farmers, like other employers in Germany, are technically required to only accept foreign workers when no German can be found for the job. With more than 10 percent of the population unemployed, government leaders are looking for any avenues to get people off the dole.


But after the uproar, the Federal Labor Office backtracked slightly.

"There could be economic disadvantages for the employer if we send over unmotivated workers, and we don't want to do that," said an office spokeswoman. The office is now advocating a measured approach to the discussion, she said.

For many of the long-term unemployed, seasonal work's temporary nature is undesirable. Add to that wages that average around 5 euros an hour and it's not hard to understand why many reject it.

The wage question

"It's a question of money," said Theo Olligschläger, a Brandenburg asparagus farmer. Most of his workers are German because he pays them an average of 7.50 euros an hour.

The chief of the German Unemployment Association agrees. Matthias Dittmann said he would have nothing against Germans working the spring harvests if they were paid as much as Olligschläger pays his workers.

"At that wage, I'd even be in favor of sending (jobless) academics over," he said.

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