Germans love their asparagus, but they tend to leave the picking to the Poles. But now, a new law encouraging Germany's long-term unemployed to find work has left the East Europeans out of a job.
Germans like to eat it, but they'd rather not pick it
Violetta and Jan Gros live in a remote village in Swietokrzyskie province, some 200 kilometers south of the Polish capital. There's little work to be found in this largely untouched corner of the earth, and come spring, the two farm workers pack their bags and head to Germany to join some 300,000 other Poles in the country for the annual asparagus harvest.
"The region we live in is a very poor, rural area," explained Violetta. "There are no businesses or factories here, and anyone who can speak a smattering of German ups it and leaves. There's practically nothing to do here."
The couple are both in their mid-forties and have been unemployed for years. The Polish state provides little in the way of support, and it's up to them to make ends meet.
"I'm actually a butcher and I worked for the same company for several years," said Jan. "But then it went bankrupt. My wife and I own three hectares of land but it's not enough to live off. I used to go to work and she took care of the farm, but as soon as I lost my job, times got tough."
In such tight circumstances, Jan soon realized his only option was to leave the country.
"My cousin had a friend in Munich who helped me get work picking asparagus," he explained. "For the first three years I went by myself, then I started to take my wife with me."
Leaving the family
The annual aspargus harvest attracts thousands of Poles every year
Jan and Violetta earn 5 euros ($6.17) an hour picking asparagus in Bavaria during the two-month season. They've never had problems getting paid on time, but despite taking home good money, they're well aware there must be easier ways of feeding a family of five.
"The early days were the hardest," said Violetta. "Having to leave home to go to work in a foreign country with foreign people was very painful. We didn't speak a word of German. It was unbearable. But I'm adaptable and I learn fast. And I knew my children would be well looked after with my parents."
Three generations of the Gros family share the small house in Swietokrzyskie. But the grandparents are getting older, and can no longer be relied upon to help out.
"My mother has always been very supportive, but she's increasingly unwell," said Violetta. "When she's not up to the work on the farm then the neighbor gives her a hand, and when we come back then we help him. Everyone helps each other."
Upping the ante
But this year, Jan and Violetta might find themselves stuck at home. Their yearly trip over the border with some thirty other locals currently hangs in the balance due to a new German law which rules that only 80 to 90 percent of last year's foreign seasonal workers can be hired this year, with unemployed Germans picking up the slack.
The government's plans, coupled with a new EU directive that requires seasonal workers to pay higher contributions into Poland's social insurance schemes, have left workers in Poland who rely on the annual asparagus harvest concerned they're about to lose out on this vital source of income.
The Poles' jobs are now in the balance
"You have to buy food in Germany for the two months that you're there and the cost of living is very high there," explained Violetta. "Many of our friends won't be going, because it's no longer worth it. But we hope that we'll still be able to make a profit and after all, we don't have anything to lose."
But ultimately, the couple are confident there's still room for them in Germany's asparagus fields.
"It's been tried before," pointed out Jan. "The Job Agency sends along some kids and they only ever last a few hours. And if the Poles don't do the work, the Slovaks will."