Thomson Reuters Foundation
Spain will temporarily allow thousands of illegal migrants to pick fruit to address labor shortages caused by the new coronavirus outbreak, in a move closely watched across Europe.
The European Union's biggest fruit and vegetable exporter will also allow unemployed Spaniards to continue to receive state benefits while working as fruit pickers in a bid to find 300,000 seasonal workers as it approaches the May harvest.
"It's an opportunity for lots of people, otherwise they're just trapped at home," Lorenzo Ramos, general secretary of the Union of Small Farmers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The countryside can be a refuge," he said, adding that workers were needed from across Spain and abroad to harvest everything from strawberries, blueberries, oranges and grapes to prunes, tomatoes and courgettes.
Spain is the first European country to make legal changes, but others are exploring solutions to agricultural labor shortages as travel restrictions imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic prevent cross-border workers travelling to their jobs.
With the prospect of fruit rotting in the fields, France has called for a "shadow army" of laid off workers to step in, while Germany is flying in eastern European farm helpers to stave off poor harvests and higher food prices.
The highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory illness could push 195 million people into unemployment globally, the International Labor Organization said on Tuesday.
As one of the world's worst-hit countries, Spain has declared a state of emergency and a strict lockdown until April 26, with only essential staff - which includes agricultural workers - free to travel to and from work.
Spain's agricultural ministry said the decree, which was issued on Tuesday, would remain in place for just under three months to guarantee food supplies and give an income to those "that need it the most", with unemployment rising steeply.
Afrucat, the Catalan association of fruit producers, warned last week that the agricultural sector in the wealthy northeastern province faced total collapse if 40,000 seasonal workers were not found urgently.
Unemployed foreigners aged 18 to 21 will also be granted temporary work visas, the agriculture ministry said in its Tuesday statement.
Salomo Torres, a spokesman for Unio de Pagesos, Catalonia's largest farming union, said employing foreign workers – who are normally given accommodation – would be complicated due to social distancing rules.
"With the state of alarm, lots of smallholding farmers could find laborers among their own family members, their neighbors or in their own town," he said.
"It's not necessary to find a workforce from abroad."