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When Germans join migrant field hands, the harvest suffers

By Andreas TzortzisCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 2006


Instead of waiting for the next welfare check, Heino Wittstock is picking asparagus.

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The German construction worker has been unemployed for three years. But this spring, he joins some 280,000 Polish migrant farmhands, plucking the foot-high green and white sentinels from the rich Brandenburg loam.

"I need to do something; Sitting at home on the couch is not an option," he says.

In an unusual effort to address its 11.9 percent unemployment rate, Berlin is also trying to answer a common refrain in many industrial nations: "Foreigners are taking jobs away from us."

In Germany, the spring asparagus is harvested by migrant farmworkers. But the labor ministry has a new rule that says 10 percent of seasonal farmworkers should be German.

With only 170 German field hands in the state of Brandenburg so far, the experiment is off to a rocky start. And German farmers are angry, saying native-born pickers are only half as efficient as the Poles.

Unemployed Germans lack both practice and motivation, farmers here say.

"You can't force people into work," says Dietrich Paul, spokesman for asparagus farmers in the state of Lower Saxony, one of Germany's biggest asparagus regions, "especially not this line of work."

Adding to the farmers' concern is the feeling that Germany, already one of the most restricted labor markets for unskilled workers, is putting up hurdles that will push Eastern European workers to increasingly look elsewhere in Europe for work. Germany's enforcement this year of an EU rule requiring Polish migrant workers to pay social security on the wages they earn has already decreased the numbers coming over for the annual harvest, say farmers.

"These seasonal workers are the basis of the biggest farms," says Mr. Paul. "They are the reason ... permanent jobs are created. If less and less come, then the farms will shrink."

Labor ministry officials deny they have anything to do with the decrease in foreign workers. The 10-percent rule introduced this season is about integrating Germans into the agricultural workforce, not trimming foreigners from it. And in contrast to failed attempts to do similar things in the past, the labor ministry is not trying to "force" anyone, says Ulrich Waschki.

Cash on top of a welfare check

Rather, he says, they're trying to recruit volunteer field hands from the ranks of the unemployed who will be attracted by the prospect of earning money on top of their monthly unemployment checks.

Depending on the region, the labor agency will pay German farm workers between 13 and 20 euros ($16.50 - $25.50) a day on top of the hourly wage they receive working on the farm, according to a spokesman. At the end of a month of work, that can mean as much as 480 euros, tax-free, from the labor agency. The additional income appeals to Mr. Wittstock, who has struggled to support his girlfriend's three children from another relationship.

"The children also want things, and we can't afford them [on unemployment] alone," says Wittstock, who gets 298 euros a month in spending money from the government in addition to a housing subsidy.