The Estonian government has been accused of paying only ‘lip service’ to farmers who face their crops spoiling in the fields for want of help with the harvest.
The appeal for foreign workers – with more than 900 needed immediately – to be allowed into the country has fallen on deaf ears, growers claim.
Roomet Sõrmus, chairman of the board of the Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce, accused his government of issuing “empty promises”.
He said: “For three months already we have been repeating day after day, like a broken gramophone, that only the opening of borders to foreign labour can solve the acute labour problem in the agricultural sector.
“The government has only made empty promises or offered lone measures that do not work in practice.
“Where are the Estonian people you promised us to help? We are waiting for them.
“We need at least 500 people for berry fields in the coming days. If they are not found, the strawberries will remain in the field.”
Elke Lillemets, of the Estonian Strawberry Farmers Association, accused the government of using deception – including offering funding to employ local workers despite their reluctance to take up farming jobs – to cover the fact it had offered no concrete help to growers.
She said: “At a meeting with the prime minister, we made it clear that most locals do not want to come to the field, therefore the offer is incomprehensible.
“Estonians usually vacation in the summer and one cannot fault them for it. We need people who actually want to come to work.”
Ms Lillemets said some farmers had already been forced to plough fields of strawberries into the ground for want of pickers to harvest them.
“Most are still fighting, but they are desperate – the harvest cannot be harvested,” she said.
Estonian MEP Urmas Paet was scathing in his condemnation of the government.
“The Estonian people have never considered it possible or tolerable to let a harvest go to waste,” he said.
“Fool the field once, the field will fool you nine times. This cry for help of farmers and the indifference of the government to the rural people of Estonia is completely unprecedented.”
Despite farmers advertising some 937 vacancies, of which 472 are for berry pickers, the Estonian authorities have been turning away foreign labour at the border.
Many of those denied entrance are Ukrainian citizens with valid visas and paperwork that would make them eligible for short-time employment.