MADRID (Reuters) - Spain moved on Tuesday to tackle a shortfall of farm workers due to the coronavirus crisis by authorizing the temporary hiring of tens of thousands of immigrants or jobless people.
Border restrictions and lockdowns have forced many foreign workers to stay at home during the peak food-harvesting season in Spain, which has the second highest death toll in the world from the COVID-19 disease.
But to unblock the production chain and prevent food shortages, the government said it would allow farms to take on between 75,000-80,000 people locally, many of whom would normally be barred from working as they receive benefits.
The initiative is especially important for the food basket regions of Andalusia, Murcia, Extremadura, Aragon and Catalonia.
Announcing the measures, Agricultural Minister Luis Planas said they would be in force until June 30 and were also intended to guarantee exports to other European Union (EU) nations.
“Two-thirds of our production goes to EU markets. Freight traffic continues to circulate smoothly and we have to provide for these markets because they are a very important source of income,” he told a virtual press briefing.
The government decree would allow jobless people to still receive welfare benefits while they temporarily join the farm sector and legal migrants to extend their work permits, Planas said.
But the measures do not apply to workers temporarily laid off due to the coronavirus as they get other help.
Some 16,000 Moroccan seasonal workers, mostly women, were due to arrive in Spain’s Huelva region to pick red fruits under an agreement between the two countries - but less than half have been able to make it.
EU seasonal workers, such as Bulgarians and Romanians, have not been able to move either.
“We can’t count on the Moroccan workers this season, but with these extraordinary measures applied to the local workforce, we should be able to address the farmers’ needs,” Planas said.
The Spanish federation of fruit and vegetable producers and exporters, Fepex, estimates the sector will need 16,000 additional workers in April, 18,000 in May and 28,000 in June.
Reporting by Emma Pinedo and Jesús Aguado; Additional reporting by Belen Carreno; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne