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Harvest time and COVID restrictions

March 18, 2021

Asparagus season is about to begin in Germany. Most of the workers who harvest the vegetables come from Eastern Europe. In the coronavirus pandemic, they have to live and work under difficult conditions.

Chris Hensgen (r) and his brother outside their farm
The Hensgen family runs a farm near the Dutch borderImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

All is quiet at the Hensgens family's asparagus farm in Selfkant, just by the Dutch border. The wind tugs at the black tarpaulins that are stretched in long strips over the mounds of earth in the asparagus fields, designed to trap the sun's heat. Next to them, white protective sheeting ripples over the strawberry plants. The fields look like an endless expanse of water.

In front of a barn, a couple of workers are piling up planters filled with soil. 

"There are only 15 of us here at the moment," says farmer Chris Hensgens, who runs the family farm with his brother Arne and their father.

"But at peak times we have 150 workers on the farm," he adds. Depending on the weather, the asparagus harvest begins in late March or early April. Strawberries, blueberries, onions, potatoes, sugar beets, wheat and corn all follow.

workers are piling up planters filled with soil
In mid march workers are piling up planters filled with soil. Image: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

For the second year in a row, farmers are facing up to a harvest season in the coronavirus pandemic. Even though they are prepared this time, they are "a little nervous" about what is to come.

"We might know a little bit more of what to expect this year," says 32-year-old Chris Hensgens. "Last March we didn't know anything."

Selfkant is in the Heinsberg district, the first coronavirus hotspot in Germany back in February 2020. As soon as they heard about the outbreak, three of the 10 workers who were already on the farm immediately got straight into their cars and drove back to Romania out of fear, Chris says.

In the lockdown that followed, harvest workers were initially banned from coming into Germany at all. Then rules changed so that farmers were allowed to fly in workers at their own expense. The Hensgens spent around €10,000 ($11,915) on tickets alone.

"Some tickets expired because our Romanian workers didn't know where the airport was and how to get there," Chris Hengens explains. "Normally, they are picked up at their homes in minibusses and brought straight here."

Black tarpaulins that are stretched in long strips over the mounds of earth in the asparagus fields
Black tarpaulins that are stretched in long strips over the mounds of earth in the asparagus fieldsImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

Like students on a school trip

The asparagus farm is the second largest in the region. Without seasonal workers, the 250 hectares of land could not be farmed.

Most of the workers are Romanian, but from July to September they are joined by Ukrainian students. They are between 18 and 25 years old and are recruited in Ukraine with the promise of being able to see something of Germany in their free time.

"Before the pandemic, the students liked to go to Aachen, Cologne or Amsterdam on weekends," says Chris Hensgens. "We can't lock them up, but now they have to stay on the farm if possible and also keep their distance from each other."

The rules aren't always observed, he says.

"Sometimes the whole thing feels like a school trip," Hensgen adds. "They drink after hours — and after a beer or two, the coronavirus rules can go out the window."

Asparagus farmer finds solution to crisis

Maintaining strict hygiene requirements is a logistical challenge for everyone on the farm. Only some of the harvest workers can still be accommodated in the long residential buildings, which are equipped with four-bedrooms, large communal kitchens, lounges, and washrooms.

For the others, extra cabins with washrooms will be rented and set up. This will cost some €30,000. And another €9,000 will be spent on the cleaning staff who regularly disinfect the washrooms, corridors, and kitchens.

Since the harvest workers are no longer supposed to drive themselves to the grocery store for infection control reasons and only seven people are allowed in the kitchens at a time, the Hensgens will provide lunch to all the workers. People will have to eat in their rooms.

Entry only with a negative test

This year, the workers will again be divided into fixed groups that work and live together. There is a plan that regulates when each group goes to the fields when they come back, and there are barrier fences to guide the way.

"If as few people as possible meet in the corridors that helps a little," says 25-year-old Arne Hensgens. When entering Germany, the workers will have to show a negative coronavirus test, and a few days later they will be tested again on the farm.

Chris Hensgens outside the workers' residential buildings
Harvest workers are housed in the long residential buildings, are equipped with four-bed rooms, large communal kitchens, lounges and washrooms.Image: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

The brothers are assuming they will have to have their workers tested regularly this year — possibly at their own expense. When infections became known on some strawberry farms in Bavaria last year, they had all their workers tested, at a cost of €7,000.

"In the process, one of our workers tested positive," Chris Hensgens remembers. Fortunately, she lived alone in a cabin and was able to stay there in quarantine for 14 days.

 "She was paid throughout by us, and we should get the costs reimbursed by the government," Chris Hengens says. "But we are still waiting for the money."

Health insurance

What would have happened if the harvest worker had fallen seriously ill?

"Then she would have been hospitalized because we have taken out private health insurance for all our workers," says Arne Hensgens.

But that's not standard practice. In Germany, harvest workers who are not deployed for more than 70 days per year are exempt from compulsory health insurance. Neither the employees nor the employers have to pay contributions to the otherwise legally required health, pension, and unemployment insurance during this time.

In 2020, this was raised to 115 days so that workers would not have to travel in and out as regularly. This is a regulation that many farms are also demanding this year. But the labor ministry is blocking it.

"Any extension of the time limits, even temporarily, must be weighed against the necessary social protection of employees," a ministry spokesperson told DW.

Germany's 'asparagus town'

Working in precarious conditions

A large proportion of the 350,000 seasonal workers in agriculture throughout Germany work under precarious conditions. Eastern European employees, in particular, suffer from "untenable conditions" and often have to work 13 hours a day for "meager pay," according to the union.

At the Hensgens' asparagus farm, a working day lasts between eight and nine hours and workers are paid the legal minimum wage of €9.50 per hour plus a bonus, depending on the personal harvest quantity. Of this, €200 must be paid for travel to and from the farm and there is a daily charge of €9 for accommodation.

"Depending on performance, our people can earn up to €2,500 per month," Arne Hensgens calculates. "People always say that anyone can pick strawberries. But it's not like that. For us, these are skilled workers, and we do a lot to get them and then keep them."

This article was translated from German.

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