E.g., 08/13/2020
E.g., 08/13/2020

A Race Against the Clock: Meeting Seasonal Labor Needs in the Age of COVID-19

Commentaries
March 2020

A Race Against the Clock: Meeting Seasonal Labor Needs in the Age of COVID-19

Claus Bunks

As the world faces a pandemic of historic proportions, governments face an array of time-sensitive policy questions. One of the more pressing ones: who is going to produce the food that their populations need? In many highly developed countries, the agriculture and horticulture sectors have long relied on foreign workers amid difficulties recruiting locally for seasonal roles such as planting and harvesting crops. But as countries close their borders or introduce travel restrictions, seasonal workers are unable to enter and agricultural producers in countries such as Canada, the United States, Belgium, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand are projecting dire labor shortages, with serious implications for food security. France’s National Federation of Agricultural Holders’ Unions warned of a shortfall of 200,000 workers over the next three months, including 80,000 to harvest asparagus and strawberries in April. Likewise, Germany is concerned about securing the 286,000 seasonal workers it needs each year, while UK agriculture representatives have warned of a potential shortfall of 80,000 seasonal workers.

Catch the Podcast

In this podcast, MPI experts examine ways in which countries could address labor shortages in agriculture, including recruiting native-born workers and letting already present seasonal workers stay longer. Catch an interesting discussion as border closures have halted the movement of seasonal workers even as crops are approaching harvest in some places.

Listen to the informative conversation here.

To avoid critical crop losses, governments are exploring a combination of three measures, two of which touch on immigration policymaking:

  • redeploying residents to take on these roles
  • expanding the stay of foreign seasonal workers already present, and
  • issuing exemptions to continue admitting foreign seasonal labor.

Each scenario requires governments to put public health considerations front and center: for example, how to screen arriving and returning workers to avoid community transmission of the virus, how to implement social distancing in a context of labor-intensive farming, how to provide adequate access to paid sick leave and health care for such workers, and how to support those stranded in destination countries by new travel restrictions.

Tapping Local Workers

As unemployment rates spike in many destination countries, governments are exploring options to recruit local workers for these seasonal roles—and in doing so, provide a sorely needed economic lifeline to the recently unemployed. To facilitate this process, Germany and France have set up online platforms to recruit locals to harvest asparagus and other time-sensitive crops; these initiatives have already registered tens of thousands of volunteers.

Yet this process is not without cost. Many new recruits will need training and practice to perform these roles to a professional standard. And while initial interest has been high, it remains to be seen whether locals can be convinced to overlook the low pay and tough working conditions that have historically deterred them from jobs in agriculture, especially in a context of new social distancing recommendations, growing internal travel restrictions, and the child-care responsibilities borne of school closures. Making these jobs more attractive to local workers will require governments to confront these issues head on to change the calculus. For example, Belgium’s government, employer organizations, and trade unions are discussing options to increase remuneration for agricultural workers.

Lengthening Visas for Existing Seasonal Workers

A second option for governments is to extend the stay of foreign seasonal workers already in the country. In the southern hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand are now mid-harvest and they are exploring measures to extend or renew the residence and work permits of seasonal workers who wish to stay. They are also seeking to connect seasonal workers with new employment opportunities in agriculture as their contracts finish. But this approach presents its own set of legal and logistical challenges, especially if these extensions stretch beyond a few weeks. Among the issues: how to support workers in between jobs, and how to sidestep the time limits set out by law to ensure migration via seasonal worker programs is strictly temporary. And this option is less applicable to Europe or North America, where seasonal labor needs for agriculture and horticulture peak later in the spring and summer months; as a result, there are fewer foreign seasonal workers who are already present.

Facilitating Admissions

Finally, a third option is for governments to find loopholes to their travel restrictions to allow the continued admission of foreign seasonal workers. The initiatives outlined above may offer a partial respite as travel restrictions continue, but resuming seasonal migration will be a top priority both for destination countries concerned about food shortages and sending countries worried about losing remittances. On March 30, the European Commission called on Member States to allow seasonal workers to travel within the bloc as essential workers. Meanwhile, in North America, the United States has largely removed requirements for in-person consular interviews for seasonal work visa applicants, and Canada has exempted seasonal and temporary workers from its travel restrictions and started developing protocols to screen new arrivals and quarantine them for 14 days.

Working with Origin Countries and Rethinking Business Models

Efforts to keep seasonal migration channels open also require the buy-in of countries of origin, some of whom (including Guatemala, Morocco, and Poland) have already cited public health concerns to curb the travel of their nationals. Reopening these channels will depend on destination governments’ ability to ensure worker safety from initial travel through return home. Additional health screenings, greater data-sharing, and new quarantine and tracing protocols are likely to be part of these arrangements going forward.

At this point, it is nearly impossible to anticipate how long disruptions to seasonal migration will continue. In a scenario where borders remain closed into and beyond the summer, continued uncertainty about the labor supply may encourage agricultural producers to rethink their business models more broadly. Reliance on local workers may force producers to raise wages and address the working and other conditions that often stymie recruitment efforts. But as countries enter a steep economic downturn and unemployment spirals upward, producers, distributors, and policymakers will need to ensure that rising costs for fruits and vegetables do not result in unaffordable price hikes for consumers. This scenario may also prompt producers to explore ways to reduce their reliance on cheap labor, for example by investing more deeply in machinery or automation technology to perform some of these tasks. As such, the COVID-19 crisis may pave the way for a broader rethink of operations that could have lasting implications for seasonal labor migration.