Migrant workers keep picking Swiss asparagus amid coronavirus curbs

RAFZ, Switzerland (Reuters) - Migrant workers drawn by attractive pay are keeping Switzerland’s asparagus supplies moving during the coronavirus crisis despite fears they could be kept out by border restrictions.

Slideshow ( 19 images )

Seasonal farm workers in Switzerland earn about 3,300 Swiss francs ($3,400) a month for a 55-hour work week, about half the national average in one of the world’s most expensive countries. It is hard, outdoor work, in all conditions.

In the Jucker Farm’s asparagus fields north of Zurich, a crew of 80 Polish and Romanian workers, many of whom have been coming for years, harvest and wash about 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) per day of the spring delicacy.

The previous day’s haul sells out by nightfall, for around 28 francs per kilo, or $14 per pound, for top-quality spears, with sales from the farm shop holding up well although deliveries to restaurants are down.

“They’re accustomed to working hard outdoors, in all weathers, for 55 hours a week and in a pay bracket on the low end of the spectrum,” said Sven Studer, who runs the operation, questioning whether local people would accept such conditions.

So far, the farm has all the workers it needs, Studer said, as fears that coronavirus border restrictions would prevent seasonal employees from getting to Switzerland have not materialised.

“Our Polish workers came over the border and through Germany without problems,” he said, walking through raised earthen rows where the tips of the asparagus poke up through the warm soil when they are ready for harvest.

Studer has received some inquiries from people looking for work after their jobs took a hit from the coronavirus crisis, but so far he has not needed additional help.

That is partly because Jucker Farm also has restaurant and event businesses closed due to the epidemic, he said, so those workers are being moved to other posts within the operation.

Currently 1.3 million workers, a quarter of the Swiss workforce, have been put on short-time working due to the crisis.

Switzerland is keeping money flowing to some self-employed people whose income has collapsed, while 76,000 companies have in just over a week tapped 15 billion francs in state-backed loans.

Reporting by John Miller and Arnd Wiegmann; Editing by Giles Elgood