Asparagus growers can't get the staff these days

Putting Germany's jobless to work in the fields seemed a good idea - but not for long writes Imre Karacs
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The Independent Online
"THIS IS inhuman work," says Edwin, pulling aside the black plastic sheets to reveal a forest of white shoots breaking cover. He must carefully excavate each one a good 10 inches down, and cut the stem with a special tool.

Harvesting asparagus, the "royal vegetable" that graces every German dinner table at this time of the year, is a lot harder than one might imagine. It is back-breaking work, requiring speed, a certain amount of dexterity and just a little intelligence. Exposed to the sun, the highly prized white shoots turn an inferior violet. Some of the aroma evaporates and profit margins shrink.

Axel Scholz, the foreman, appreciates the difficulty of the job and the value of good workers. He is distraught. "I have four tonnes of asparagus out here, but not enough help to pick it. When the asparagus comes, it has to be harvested immediately, otherwise it you might as well just chuck it away. But these people won't understand that."

Mr Scholz looks longingly at the gang of Poles working on the other side of the dirt track. They are here only four weeks a year and cannot speak a word of German, yet have no trouble understanding that the more they work, the more they will earn. They will stay out for 12 hours if necessary, seven days a week, and will still cut three or four times as much asparagus per hour as the Germans the foreman keeps cursing. The natives just cannot hack it, he complains.

"You cannot say they are all lazy," Mr Scholz adds. "It's true that most of them don't like the work, and they will not stay in the field for more than six hours a day. Some do try very hard, but they just cannot do quality work. Not like the Poles, at any rate."

There is no shortage of itinerant Polish workers looking for seasonal work in Germany to supplement their meagre incomes. But in this election year, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has declared war on unemployment, and decreed that henceforth Germans must pick asparagus, strawberries and grapes, too. The government has cut the quota of work permits issued to Poles by 10 per cent, and ordered asparagus farmers to ensure that at least one out of 10 workers in their fields is a German. Since there are no volunteers, the unemployed have been press-ganged into service.

It seemed like a good idea in Bonn, but in practice the scheme has turned into a nightmare. Three weeks after the start of the asparagus harvest, the crop is rotting in the fields and farmers are suing the government for compensation.

Germany's first experiment with workfare since Hitler has failed, because it required 20,000 suitable workers and they could not be found among nearly five million unemployed. Take the nearby market town of Sulingen, whose job centre was ordered to recruit asparagus pickers from among its 1,200 registered unemployed. On grounds of health, family commitments and other reasons, only 350 were sent on a three-day course at an agricultural college to be taught the craft of asparagus picking and ergonomics - the latter in order to avoid back injury.

About 140 got through the course, but that is when the problems really began. "We always knew if would be difficult to find people," admits Joachim Rabe of the job centre. "It always is when heavy work is involved. For this job, people must get up early and do weekends. Most are not willing to do that."

At the state's expense, Mr Rabe laid on transport, including special buses to the fields and back, and taxis in emergencies. Pay was the standard DM10.60 (pounds 3.49) an hour, plus the government's contribution of a DM25 daily rate. The unemployed are required to work six hours a day for up to seven days a week. In theory, pay on average should be about 30 per cent up on the dole. Those who refuse could lose up to 12 weeks' unemployment benefit.

For that reason, nobody says a flat "no", but many are proving strangely allergic to fresh air. The 30 Germans Mr Scholz has in the field are the pick of the bunch - they have their bouts of flu, but at least they call in sick and, after a few days, they are back at work. More than half of the original gang of 69, however, have contrived to have themselves sacked, either by going AWOL, or simply falling sick and not reporting to their employers.

"I'm not going to hang around much longer, either," says Edwin, who describes himself as a "slave labourer". He says the Poles harvest all the asparagus in the afternoon, leaving the Germans too little to pick in the morning. They thus fail to meet the minimum quota, do not get their hourly rate and provide the farmer - who would rather employ Poles in any case - with a pretext for sacking them.

"This scheme doesn't work," admits the owner of the field, Heinrich Thiermann, one of Germany's largest asparagus producers. "This government decision has not been thought through. There is a danger that they will kill this business."

His foreman's concerns are more immediate. "The job centre is sending me another 12 tomorrow," Mr Scholz says gravely.