By Barbara Erling

Polish farmers are desperately trying to fill the gap left by foreign seasonal labourers, who are stuck at home due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Overburdened consulates, a 14-day quarantine requirement, and few open border crossings are among the key factors preventing migrants from entering Poland.

In recent years, there has been an average of around a million migrant workers in Poland at any one time, according to data from the National Bank of Poland. The vast majority of them come from Ukraine and other neighbouring countries.

In 2017 and 2018, the last years for which EU-wide data are available, Poland issued more first residence permits to immigrants from outside the European Union than any other member state. Last year, the number of work permits issued by Poland to non-EU citizens rose again, with three quarters going to Ukrainians.

Before the pandemic broke out, Ukrainians could work in Poland on the basis of visa-free travel for 90 days or a working visa that allowed them to work from 6 to 12 months. After this period, they would have to return to Ukraine.

When Poland’s government announced its border closures on 15 March, many migrant workers rushed home, fearing unemployment and running out of money to live in Poland, according to KATIKA, an firm that assists migrants. Unclear communication from the Ukrainian authorities also raised worries about the possibility of not being allowed to return to Ukraine after 17 March.

In the two months that followed the border closure, a total of 235,188 Ukrainian citizens left Poland, while 86,714 entered, according to border service data reported by Business Insider. While some of them would transit to Germany, the net movement across Poland’s border with Ukraine amounted to a decline of 150,000.

Personnel Service, a foreign recruitment agency, estimates that before the COVID-19 pandemic around 160,000 Ukrainian workers had been travelling to Poland every month. If the epidemic lasts until June, the number of Ukrainians not admitted to the country will exceed 480,000.

With fewer Ukrainians arriving, Polish farmers are concerned about severe labour shortages. They have warned of significant price rises, rotting crops and shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables this season.

Triple blow of drought, frost and lack of migrant workers will see food prices soar in Poland

Families and neighbours working the fields

Every year 500,000 farmhands come to Poland to pick soft fruits, such as strawberries and blueberries, says Wiktor Szmulewicz, the president of the National Council of Agricultural Chambers, quoted by Newseria. And while some industries can be put on hold, agriculture cannot wait.

The first products to feel the blow will be the early-bloomers, strawberries and asparagus. Wiesław, a farmer from Lwówek Śląski, who grows strawberries, needs 30 people in the fields daily for the next few months.

“My wife and our retired neighbour are helping me to prepare the field for harvesting, but picking all the fruits on our own will be impossible,” he tells Notes from Poland.

Przemysław Matusiak, a farmer who grows strawberries, apples and cherries near Sochaczew, admits that, says the labour shortage, what he and his parents do not manage to pick will rot.

“It would consume even more money, because apart from fixed cost if the field is ‘unemptied’, a farmer needs to undertake a series of actions to ensure the next year’s crops will grow normally,” explains Matusiak.

The situation is similar among asparagus producers. Sławomir Mielczarek, an asparagus farmer in Pątnów, says that this year’s cold weather has surprisingly been a saving grace. “The cold hampered asparagus, so by now I’ve managed to pick the ready ones,” he adds. However, when the sun comes out, “I will need at least 10 people a day”.

Farmers warn of food crisis in Poland due to lack of migrant seasonal workers during lockdown

Włodzimierz Janusiewicz, who also grows asparagus, has filled the labour gap with workers from Georgia, Uzbekistan and within Poland itself. However, he says they are not as efficient as those from Ukraine and Belarus.

“It is hard to rely on people who came to Poland to do something else than farming. They’re not as attached to work here, so they come and go very frequently,” he says.

Experts warn that a shortage of seasonal workers would cost Poland billions of zloty in losses. “The sudden lack of employees from Ukraine in connection with the border closure will result in the collapse of many industries in our economy and may threaten the security of maintaining the food supply chain,” said Sławomir Izdebski, president of the National Agreement of Farmers’ Unions and Agricultural Organisations, in an appeal to the Polish prime minister.

Borders open up, but issues remain

Following pressure from unions, employers and workers, on 18 April the government introduced simpler procedures for foreigners wishing to gain the right of residence and extended the stay of foreign workers whose visas expire during the epidemic.

Then, on 4 May, the government followed with the first steps towards unfreezing its tight border rules. Polish consulates in Ukraine, which suspended operations in mid-March, began issuing work visas again, with priority given to agricultural, horticultural and transportation workers.

Poland loosens lockdown for workers from Ukraine and Poles with jobs in Germany

Yet some Ukrainians still find the process cumbersome. The Polish consulate in Odessa asks that visa applicants make appointments over the phone from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. “It’s hard to reach the consulate, the phone is constantly busy,” says Dima, a Ukrainian who wants to come to Poland.

Moreover, until recently, those who do get through and ultimately receive a work permit for Poland still need to undergo 14 days of quarantine upon arrival. This, however, was tweaked as of 12 May, with seasonal farm workers undergoing quarantine while harvesting, provided that their employers offer coronavirus testing.

Not all farmers are happy with the new migration regime. “It’s ridiculous that we need to bear further cost,” complains Matusiak. The price for one test is around 500 zloty, and when a farmer wants to shorten quarantine to seven days, he needs two tests, so it comes to a total cost of 1,000 zloty per worker.

Another problem is accommodation. “I house workers at my private home, so I need to quarantine myself too. So who will sell the asparagus we pick?” asks Mielczarek.

The new law also says that workers on farms who pick soft fruits and green vegetables must cover their mouths and use disposable gloves. “While using gloves is completely obvious, I cannot imagine working 10 hours under the sun with a mask on,” says Matusiak.

Picky Polish workers

The European Commission estimates that around a third of workers in the EU are employed in so-called “key sectors”, which include agriculture, education, engineering, care, cleaning and social assistance. Migrants make up 13% of these workers, usually in the most difficult and lower-paid jobs.

“Migrant workers are very important to Poland’s economic stability. They create 2% of Polish GDP,” says Cezary Kaźmierczak, the president of the Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers. Despite the widespread view that migrants take jobs away from Poles, they actually do the work which Poles do not want.

Ukrainian immigrants add 11% of Polish GDP growth

The pandemic has confirmed that Polish workers are in no hurry to fill the jobs left behind. Farmers say that Poles are not keen on farm jobs, even when they offer good pay:

“The efficient workers sometimes are able to earn even 7,000 zloty [per month],” says Wiesław. The average hourly pay for seasonal workers is around 10-12 zloty, and they are usually also offered accommodation free of charge.

Grzegorz Górka, a farmer who grows apples near Warsaw and employs workers only from September to early November, says that the seasonal nature of agricultural jobs puts Poles off. “Maintaining guaranteed continuity of work is necessary for them, and farming doesn’t provide it.”

Poland’s approach needs to change

Since 2014 there has been an increasing number of foreigners coming to Poland, according to the Office for Foreigners. Most of them come for work, rather than to seek social benefits. Almost 80% of the country’s migrant workers come from outside the EU, with a higher proportion found only in the Czech Republic and Malta.

“Citizens of Ukraine who live and work in Poland are an important entity without which the dynamic economic growth recorded in our country would be lower,” wrote Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, in an article published in Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, a Ukraine online newspaper.

In recent years, migrants have plugged the gap in Poland’s labour market, created by galloping economic growth, record-low unemployment, a falling birth rate and mass emigration of Polish workers after the country joined the EU in 2004. However, experts predict that the immigration boom is coming to an end.

The decline is already visible for agricultural workers from abroad: according to the National Bank of Poland the percentage of migrants working on fields has dropped by 42 percentage points.

Three quarters of Poles say immigrants from outside the EU benefit the economy

“I was working in agriculture but this is a tough job. I had to stop doing so because I am too old for such work,” says Lana Palii, a Ukrainian saleswoman working in a village near Warsaw, who has been in Poland for the last nine years. She cites harsh working conditions and demanding employers.

Cezary Kaźmierczak, however, argues that it is the lengthy procedures around obtaining permits for employment and residence which scare off most potential workers. Last year’s Supreme Audit Office report revealed that foreigners in Poland wait for residence permits for an average of six months. In some cases the average time to process an application exceeds 300 days.

Another solution could be allowing Ukrainians to come for longer at a time, which would also help to stabilise the labour market.

Migrant workers are essential to Poland’s economic stability, and the disruptions caused by the coronavirus lockdown have highlighted this fact. Experts hope that the realisation may push authorities to make laws simpler and more effective – both for worse and for better times.

Main image credit: Jakub Orzechowski / Agencja Gazeta

Barbara Erling is a multimedia journalist. She joined Gazeta Wyborcza as a Google News Initiative fellow, and has worked for CNN Indonesia, Polish Television and Thomson Reuters.

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