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Government aims to change Aliens Act to rescue vegetable and berry harvests

There is a risk that much of this year's harvest could go uncollected due to a labour shortfall.

Kypsä mansikka kädessä.
A labour shortage could threaten this summer’s strawberry harvest. Image: Mari Karjalainen / Yle

Over the past couple of decades, most seasonal workers in Finnish agriculture have come from abroad. With the coronavirus crisis limiting travel, there are worries about food possibly going to waste due to a labour shortage this summer.

The government is proposing that people with residence permits in Finland be offered work in sectors that are important in ensuring the country’s security of supply and keeping the labour market operational.

The cabinet aims to make temporary changes to the Aliens Act and the Seasonal Workers Act that would remain in effect until the end of this year.

Olli Sorainen, a senior official at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, notes that there are thousands of foreign citizens with residence permits and visas in Finland. However realistically only a fraction of them would be available to start doing agricultural work.

“In practice these legislative changes would expand the possible workforce by a few hundred people,” he estimates.

If Parliament approves the plan, all third-country nationals living legally in Finland would be allowed to do work in sectors deemed important for security of supply. Third-country nationals are people from countries outside the EU, Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein or Switzerland. According to Statistics Finland, the largest such groups in the country are from Russia, Iraq, China and Thailand.

Job-seekers and students into the fields, too?

Finland needs an estimated 15,000-20,000 for seasonal work such as picking berries and working on vegetable farms. Typically most of these come from Thailand and Ukraine, but depending on the pandemic situation, they may not be able to come to Finland this year at all.

In that case the labour shortfall could not be filled with foreign residents of Finland.

So the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment is hoping to attract students and workers who have been furloughed or made redundant to apply for summer jobs in agriculture, Sorainen says.

The work can be hard and requires labourers who are physically fit – and ready to work for wages starting at 8.71 euros per hour, he says.

The Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK) surveyed its members about their anticipated need for workers. Nearly all said they will need labour in July, and almost one fifth said they are already short of workers.

For instance, berry processing firm Kiantama in Suomussalmi says it will need 800 pickers.

“We usually buy 14-15 million kilos of Finnish blueberries, but without foreign harvesters we won’t get even half of that. We’ll be lucky if we get 20-30 percent of that,” CEO Vernu Vasunta tells Yle.

Vasunta says companies will need to know by early June at the latest whether or not workers will be arriving from other countries.

Thai officials had earlier promised to send at least 3,000 wild berry harvesters to Finland this summer, but that figure now looks unlikely, says Sorainen.

Vasunta points out that even if foreign labourers do make it here, they will likely face a two-week quarantine before beginning work.

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