Why farm-worker migration is booming

In Poland, it was the locals who once picked the Polish fruit and vegetables. That changed in 2004, when the country joined the European Union and Poles were permitted to work in Britain, Ireland and Sweden. Over the next seven years, the rest of the EU opened its doors. Unemployment in Poland has fallen sharply and wages rose by 30% in real terms in 2004-17. These days, work in the fields seems less appealing to Poles.

Migrants from the east have replaced the locals. This year, some 500,000 seasonal workers from outside the EU worked on Polish farms, up from fewer than 200,000 in 2014. Some have been working since early summer, picking strawberries, then raspberries, then apples. They are the largest group of legal migrant farm workers in any developed country. But there are plenty more elsewhere.

In 2013 America’s federal government allowed farmers to fill 99,000 jobs with temporary foreign workers, most of whom came from Mexico. This year it is on track to let in about 240,000. A Republican-sponsored bill would raise the limit to 450,000 a year, allowing workers to stay for up to three years. Germany, that like other European countries, has opened its fields to workers from Bulgaria, Romania and other eastern EU member-states, also admits about 60,000 Ukrainians a year. Smaller programmes in Australia, New Zealand and South Korea are growing fast.

The Economist describes how, when the schemes are well run, seasonal migration can transform people’s lives. New Zealand’s “recognised seasonal employer” programme began in 2007 with 5,000 migrant workers and has grown to 11,000. Almost all the workers who take part in this scheme are men from poor Pacific islands such as Tonga and Vanuatu.


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