Substantial interest in seasonal farm work amid crisis
In just four days, nearly 400 people responded to an Agriculture Ministry call for help with seasonal farm work, after it became clear that seasonal workers, in particular from Romania, would not be able to help due to health concerns associated with the coronavirus epidemic.
Students, idled workers, the unemployed, pensioners, families, the self-employed as well as those employed and people who would simply want to offer gratuitous help have come forward, Agriculture Minister Aleksandra Pivec told the STA on Wednesday.
She added that first such placements had already been carried out and would help prevent loss of crops.
Many see work on farms as an opportunity to get some exercise and spend time outdoors while lending a hand to farmers, according to the ministry, which said that earning a wage was hence not a top priority for those people.
But growers of hops, fruit and vegetables are still in search for sufficient help as a large number of foreign seasonal workforce is not able to get to Slovenia.
They say they have been contacted by some people who have responded to the ministry's call, but are still largely trying to solve the issue on their own.
Janez Oset of the Association of Hop Growers told the STA a majority of those who had responded were people on temporary lay-off and that their help, although very welcome, was only a temporary solution as many of them would soon return to their jobs.
Strawberry and vegetable grower Igor Jarkovič from Krško said that aid from Slovenia was not an optimal solution as they needed to drive from various parts of the country, while adding that domestic workers were unreliable and poorly trained.
Both Oset and Jarkovič believe that getting skilled workers from abroad would be a better solution. They would stay quarantined in Slovenia for a week and then tested again. If they are not infected, they would be accommodated close to the farm where they work.
The ministry's call to Slovenian workers has meanwhile also raised concerns regarding the organisation of such labour and wages.
Workers' organisations have launched into criticism over alleged workers' exploitation. Goran Lukić, the head of the Counselling Office for Workers, has highlighted that the minimum hourly wage for seasonal work is set below the statutory minimum wage.
He urged the minister to raise the minimum hourly wage for this type of work and provide job security to seasonal workers.
The ministry said on Wednesday that the minimum hourly wage was set in line with the agriculture law, however the actual figure was subject to agreement between the employer and the worker.
"I'm extremely disappointed that we always start looking for downsides in all good projects in Slovenia," said Pivec, denying the criticism that the initiative would help promote a kind of serfdom and stressing that the ministry merely wanted to help.
Temping agencies for students and the Employment Service are in charge of contract management and contact coordination, while the ministry is also working on a special platform for managing the supply and demand of domestic labour.
The first such contracts have been already signed and hop farms, which need help the most at this time, have already seen an influx of new workforce, said Pivec.
She is convinced that Slovenian workers would do the work as well as Romanian seasonal workers who usually help Slovenian hop growers or even better.
The arrival of foreign farm workers had been cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, with farmers expressing disappointment over such a development as well as scepticism as to whether Slovenian workers could fill the void.
Pivec is determined to see the project through despite criticism and reservations, and might even advocate its continuation after the end of the epidemic, depending on the outcome.
Responding to concerns that taking on this type of work could become mandatory for those receiving welfare, the minister highlighted that for now people eager to work had come forward themselves. If such placements were to be made mandatory in the future, that would be coordinated by various ministries, she explained.
"Even if it came to that, I don't know what's the difference between working in agriculture or in a factory. I still don't think that's the worst thing that can happen," she said.