Spargelzeit: German farmers raise alarm as coronavirus border closures impact seasonal workers

Whether it's served with butter and ham, drowned in hollandaise sauce or topped with a fried egg, nothing says spring in Germany like Spargel (asparagus).

Spargelzeit: German farmers raise alarm as coronavirus border closures impact seasonal workers
Seasonal workers in Weiterstadt, Hesse. Photo: DPA

But this year, the cherished vegetable may be a rare sight on dining tables as many of the foreign seasonal workers who would usually harvest the crop are unable to enter the country because of travel bans imposed over the coronavirus.

“The situation is very tense for us farmers,” says Thomas Syring, who runs a farm in Beelitz, a town in the state of Brandenburg known for its cultivation of white asparagus.

Syring is just one of hundreds of farmers faced with the threat that his crops may be left rotting in the fields because of a serious shortage of workers.

With warmer weather looming, farmers across Europe are scrambling for ways to fill the manpower gap as travel restrictions imposed to halt COVID-19 contagion toughen.

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Spargelzeit

Tens of thousands needed

During a normal season, Syring's farm employs about 60 workers from Romania, Poland and Bulgaria. At present, only 10 have arrived.

“At the moment it is cold again, it will slow down the growth of the asparagus. But in a week, at the latest, the asparagus will come out of the ground and continue to grow,” he warns at his farm, where rows upon rows of asparagus are waiting beneath sheets of white plastic to keep the soil warm.

Jürgen Jakob of Beelitzer Spargel, an association for asparagus farmers in Beelitz, says only half of the 5,000 seasonal workers required in the region have arrived so far this year.

READ ALSO: Germany imposes border controls with five countries due to coronavirus crisis

“There is a need for quick clarification on how workers from Romania and Poland in particular can enter Germany,” says Udo Hemmerling, general secretary of the German Farmers' Association.

Around 300,000 seasonal workers come to Germany each year, mainly from Poland and Romania, to help with fruit and vegetable harvests, according to Hemmerling.

In Austria, which is facing a manpower shortage of 5,000 to help in fruit and vegetable farms, the ministry has set up a website to get people in other sectors to sign up and help.

File photo of asparagus. Photo: DPA

And in Switzerland, fears are growing that only a fraction of the 33,000 seasonal workers required annually will be available this year.

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

Double pay

German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner said Europe's biggest economy requires “30,000 seasonal workers in March alone, with the number rising to 85,000 in May”.

She has suggested filling some of the vacancies with workers who have suddenly found themselves unemployed because of the coronavirus crisis.

Measures agreed by the cabinet on Monday to help farmers include allowing the workers that are available to work for longer, and easing red tape around hiring temporary workers from other sectors.

But the farmers still prefer to bring in experienced farmhands from abroad.

READ ALSO: Drivers turned back as Germany partially closes borders

With land transit routes blocked, some have resorted to flying workers in on chartered flights, but even though they have valid work permits, some are still not being allowed in.

Others are offering better deals to entice workers.

“For asparagus, our partners are offering to double salaries, as well as very good conditions on accommodation and catering to assure workers that they won't need to go out,” says Emese Molnar, who runs a Romanian company that sends seasonal workers to countries including Germany and the Netherlands.

But beyond border barriers, some are simply worried about travelling.

“If they're too afraid to leave their home, how can they go abroad?” asked Simona, a Romanian seasonal labour agent.

For Beelitz's Jakob, time might be running out.

“We are now very close to the asparagus harvest, but if we do not have enough harvest workers, we will not be able to harvest the whole crop,” he warns.

Bringing in workers from other sectors won't solve the problem because of the time it takes to train them.

“Perhaps they will have learned how to do it by the end of the asparagus season, but that doesn't help us very much,” Jakob says.

By Tobias Schwarz with Femke Colburn in Berlin

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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.