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Who Cuts the Asparagus? A case for free movement

October 11, 2016 9:16 AM
By Chris Higman, British citizen and FDP local councillor in Schwalbach, close to Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Asparagus is a cult vegetable in Germany. Anyone who has visited a restaurant between late April and late June will have seen the special seasonal asparagus menus. Most of the asparagus is grown in the sandy soils of northern Germany, but we have our own asparagus growing area around Darmstadt, just south of Frankfurt, where about 10,000 tons are grown annually. Every asparagus-growing region is proud of its own local product. Here it is sufficiently important that the Minister of Agriculture for Hessen, Priska Hinz, opened the season this year by cutting the ceremonial first asparagus.

Germans prefer white asparagus for its softness and slightly sweet taste. White asparagus is protected from sunlight by growing it under mounds of soil. So cutting asparagus is a skilled job. Firstly one has to recognize where is has grown to a harvestable size. But then one has to cut it underground using a special tool without damaging the surrounding spears that are not yet ready for harvesting. And this has to be done while bending over the plant - a strenuous task.

As the rural population in West Germany declined, farm labourers came from Eastern Europe, particularly from Poland, to help with the back-breaking work during the 8 week asparagus season. By the late 1990's the majority of the labourers in the asparagus fields were Polish seasonal workers.

Poland joined the EU in 2004. Each old member country was able to declare a moratorium on freedom of movement in three stages for a maximum of up to seven years. Ireland, Sweden and the UK decided to introduce it straight away. France introduced it in 2006. Germany retained restrictions on Polish workers until May 2011. These decisions, each made by the individual country concerned, had its impact on the asparagus economy in South Hessen.

At this time, Germany was still economically the 'sick man of Europe'. By the end of 2005 unemployment had reached 5 Million, a rate of nearly 12%. And still it was expected that about 350,000 Polish asparagus cutters would be coming in the spring of 2006. In December 2005 the German Minister of Labour, Franz Müntefering, decided to act. He reduced the number of work permits for foreign asparagus cutters by 20% and planned that 35,000 unemployed would be recruited to do the work. For Polish workers this was only possible because Germany had delayed introducing freedom of movement.

What was the effect of this seemingly rational policy? The German Farmer's Association made a survey of 1000 farmers with sobering results. The surveyed farmers had been promised a total of 7,839 workers by the Labour Agency. In fact only 5,233 even bothered to come for an interview. 2,859 actually started work in the fields, but only 1,264 completed their contracts by the end of the 8 week season. Many could not take the hard work or sometimes the unfavourable weather conditions. Cases were quoted where people simply stopped working without even giving any reason at all. The result was a disaster for the farmers.

With this experience the Farmer's Association lobbied strongly to restore the freedom to employ the best workers for the job - "we want our Polish workers back again". This was not as easy as one might have thought. Workers who had been excluded from the German harvest found a ready alternative in the United Kingdom, where the Government had already unilaterally introduced freedom of movement before other countries. The German government did relent on its policy but only in 2009 was there sufficient labour for a normal harvest in South Hessen again.

Since 2011 there is complete freedom of movement between Germany and Poland. The German unemployment is down to below 6%. And in the spring we can hope for another successful asparagus harvest.