The Austrian answer to the vineyard worker shortage

Coronavirus has brought Austria soaring unemployment but taken its seasonal workers. Jason Sych reports on a program aimed at solving the problem.

Nussberg, Vienna/ÖWM / Gerhard Elze
Nussberg, Vienna/ÖWM / Gerhard Elze

Asparagus left in the ground, strawberries unpicked and vineyards without workers – the novel coronavirus has closed borders in Europe, making the passage of seasonal agricultural workers nearly impossible. This means a shortage of hands available to do the work. 

Not only that, but unemployment is soaring as quarantines put economies into deep freeze.

In Austria, the Ministry of Agriculture has come up with a novel scheme to solve both problems – encourage Austrians to work on the land.

Workers from neighbouring countries are still allowed to cross the border into Austria each day to work, as long as it’s within 30km of the border. The workers must return to their home countries each night. But farms that lie more than 30km from the border can’t use foreign workers – anyone travelling more than 30km into Austria has to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

“In other places that are more internal, producers have to find a different solution,” said Dorli Muhr, founder of Wine & Partners, a wine marketing agency in Vienna, Austria, whose company represents some of the wine estates feeling the effects of the labour shortage.

The closures are also affecting other agricultural sectors. “There is really trouble in the harvesting of asparagus, and the production of meat,” said Muhr. 

The Austrian Ministry of Agriculture has created an online platform that connects farms outside the 30km border zone connect with unemployed Austrians, matching people in need of work with available jobs. According to a statement from the Ministry, over 7,000 people signed up in the first few days of the platform’s launch. Germany launched a similar platform shortly afterwards.  

Unfortunately, the number of applicants is a fraction of what is needed. In a statement, Simon Schumacher, board spokesman for the Association of Southern German Asparagus and Strawberry Growers, said, “for the asparagus and strawberry harvest alone, growers in southern Germany need more than 180,000 seasonal workers.”

Private companies are also stepping in – has waived its normal fee during the crisis. “This platform has made it now for free so that during the crisis people can do the advertising” if they need to find people to work, said Muhr.

The more than 130 wine jobs on offer in the German-speaking world, from salespeople to winemakers to tasting room assistants, suggests that the wine industry itself is in good health. As long as the coronavirus is long gone by the time harvest comes around, it will hopefully stay that way.

Jason Sych

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