Estonia rolls back on seasonal worker curb to end 'strawberry war'

By Tarmo Virki

TALLINN (Reuters) - The Estonian government decided on Monday to reverse an earlier decision to block entry to seasonal workers from outside the European Union, ending a standoff dubbed the "strawberry war" in local media.

Opposition lawmakers had called for a special session of parliament on Monday, seeking to resolve the labour problem as farmers said that strawberries and other crops were rotting in the fields without seasonal workers from abroad to pick them.

The decision means seasonal workers will be allowed to enter Estonia for up to six months in a year until April 2022.

The far-right EKRE party, a member of the ruling coalition, has been strongly campaigning against using migrant workers, who come mostly from Ukraine, saying local unemployed people should be given the jobs.

Unemployment in Estonia is expected to triple this year to around 13% as coronavirus lockdowns have hit industries like tourism and transport.

EKRE said it agreed to the ruling as at the same time the government has introduced new limits on allowing in foreign students.

The government said it had reversed its decision on economic grounds, aiming to help struggling businesses, like Ramsi Agro which said it has 70% of its strawberry harvest of 50 tonnes left in the fields as it has only half the number of migrant workers it needs to pick them.

"The situation is very bad and we feel awful because all our hard work is staying in the fields now," Ramsi Agro manager Margus Klais told Reuters.

"It is drastic and sad to see. All the berries are in the furrows, red, and there is nothing we can do with them anymore. They are overripe, fermenting and so on," he said.

(Additional reporting by Janis Laizans; editing by Niklas Pollard and Hugh Lawson)