A group of lawmakers from Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' party in April warned there was an "imminent danger" that a range of harvests could be affected by the worker shortage. Albania supplies most of the thousands of seasonal labourers that normally work on Greek fruit farms this time of year. Authorities are unable to provide exact figures, noting that many foreign labourers in previous years came on tourist visas and worked illegally.
Around 15,000 farm labourers are required each year in the fruit-producing regions of Imathia and Pella in northern Greece, says Antonis Markovitis, head of an association representing around 500 growers. Foreign labour is necessary as usually only few of Greece's thousands of unemployed sign up.
Typically two-thirds of Greeks find the work too demanding and leave, farmers here say. "It's hard to believe that in an area with 20 percent unemployment, we cannot find field labourers," notes Markovitis. According to the Greek state unemployment agency, some 8,400 jobless applied for farm work in March nationwide. Last year, the equivalent was over 9,500.
Pavlos Satolias, head of the Nea Paseges farmers' confederation, says there is an urgent need for the maintenance of fruit trees, vineyards and vegetable fields. Part of this year's asparagus harvest has already been lost because of insufficient labour, he noted.
To address the shortage, the Greek agriculture ministry on May 1 launched a scheme to allow foreign farm labourers into the country, making an exception to coronavirus border lockdown rules. The vast majority are expected to come from Albania.
Around 90 Albanian labourers crossed the border this week, said Christos Yiannakakis, head of Greece's association of pear and stone fruit producers, which include apricots, cherries, plums, and peaches. Some are also expected from Bulgaria, but additional labour may have to be relocated from strawberry and orange harvests in southern Greece, he said.
In Tirana, it is estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 workers could participate in the scheme. Under the rules, Greek producers can bring in foreign workers for three months, provided they put them on a two-week quarantine upon entering the country.