Ukrainians migrating to agriculture

27-year-old Ukrainian Igor.

PHOTO: Ülle Harju

Ukrainians who stayed in Estonia when the coronavirus crisis began and whose work permits are about to expire or who have lost their job due to the crisis are migrating to agriculture. The process is made possible by an exception that allows foreign workers to remain in Estonia provided they can secure employment in agriculture.

“I used to work for a small industrial company but moved to a farm now,” 27-year-old Ukrainian Igor, who has been working in Estonia for nearly two years, told Postimees. Industrial production fell sharply when the coronavirus crisis began and there was no more work for Igor. “A lot of my acquaintances had already moved to agriculture,” Igor, who works in a farm in Southern Estonia, said. “I studied to be an electrician, but I’m a country lad and can do every kind of farm work. We had chickens, pigs, ducks, cows at home. Clean or dirty work, where or when, it’s all the same to me.”

Igor works 11-12-hour days in Estonia for 250-350 hours a week. “Two days working, followed by two nights working and then two days off,” he said. “I have nothing to do on my day off – I rather work another day. It is sad to just sit around the apartment alone. If I had a wife or a girlfriend, things would be different…”

But Igor quickly moved on to more positive topics. “I will try to get an Estonian residence permit once the crisis ends, I want to keep working here,” the farmhand said.

Igor said that if he used to visit his parents and brother in Ukraine, he now stays in touch over the phone and online. Ukraine has prohibited its citizens from leaving the country, which is why Igor would not be able to return to Estonia. Igor said he hopes Ukraine will end its state of emergency in early May – the number of COVID-19 cases is falling there.

Hope to work until the end of July at least

Igor’s short-term work permit will expire in late May. “I very much hope I will get to continue working at the farm,” he said. “But there is no clarity in terms of that today, so I don’t know what is going to happen.”

His hopes lie with an amendment to the Aliens Act that entered into force on April 20, according to which foreign workers who were in Estonia on March 17 can extend their expired or soon-to-expire short-term work permits until July 31 if they can find a job in agriculture.

All of Igor’s [Ukrainian] acquaintances in Estonia have already landed jobs in agriculture. “The boys left Tartu because there was no more work to be had there,” he said. “Of course Ukrainians want to work in agriculture! The alternative is to return to Ukraine and just sit at home.”

Should things not work out in Estonia, what about Finland? Finland wanted to bring in 1,500 Ukrainian seasonal workers this year, while the latter closed its borders before 200 had the chance to arrive in Finland.

“Why not if it will be possible to get there,” Igor said. “I have spent most of my working life abroad. After I graduated from the institute, I spent two years working in Ukraine before going to work in Hungary for a year. But I like it much more in Estonia. The pay is better and many people speak Russian, not a single person did in Hungary!”

Ukrainians call looking for work

Because many Ukrainian seasonal workers were locked out of Estonia when the coronavirus crisis began, farmers were desperate to figure out who would do all the work this season as recently as a few weeks ago. Now, they are surprised – Ukrainians who used to work in construction or manufacturing are contacting them and asking for work.

“Ukrainians call us and ask for work,” head of a strawberry farm in Põlva Municipality Ranet Roositalu said.

The farm needs 120 workers to harvest its crop and has only found four through the Unemployment Insurance Fund so far.

“The problem is that we need hands in June, while Ukrainians want to start immediately. We take down their names, but it’s likely they will find a job in another agricultural company before that,” Roositalu admitted.

Owner of the Kaska-Luiga Farm in Kanepi Municipality, Põlva County Avo Kruusla said he expected two seasonal workers who didn’t come, while one Ukrainian who already has an Estonian residence permit got stuck in Ukraine when the country closed its borders.

Kruusla was greatly surprised when Ukrainians in Estonia started contacting him and asking for work. “They call, many show up to ask for work,” he said. “They say there is no more work where they come from. I have been contacted by six Ukrainians. They are excellent workers who can do everything, including operating agricultural machinery. Men, women… I recently got a call from a Ukrainian girl who used to work at Aqva Spa in Rakvere.”

Kruusla added that Ukrainians are not quick to return home and agree to all manner of training. From what they say, their outlook in Ukraine is dismal. A job that pays €1,000 after taxes in Estonia would only net them €200 in Ukraine.

Mario Kalvet, who runs a beekeeping farm near Rõuge, Võru County also has no reason to bemoan his beekeeper getting stuck in Ukraine. His phone won’t stop ringing either. “A Ukrainian who works in the timber industry just asked me about the job,” he said. “He was willing to start practical training right away, while it turned out he does not have a driver’s license,” Kalvet said. Because the job requires the beekeeper to move around, Kalvet could not hire the Ukrainian.

“But I’m sure I will find a fine worker – locally,” the farmer said. “The situation has changed. When I was looking for a hand for the summer two years ago, three younger and two older people responded in 40 days. None were a good fit. Now, when I put up the ad, I had 11 people react during the first day!” Around 40 people are looking to help out the beekeeper, while Mario plans to interview three or four.

The pay is good at €7 an hour after taxes. “But there is enough work to last until the end of August, 50 hours a week. Not everyone can handle such a workload,” Kalvet warned.

Külmsoo Farm near Põlva found a local guy to drive a tractor for them. “We got him because he ran out of work in Finland,” owner Ole Musting said. “The farm’s former tractor operator is stuck at home in Ukraine. Two Ukrainians are working as milkers at the farm. We will have to see whether we can find someone to do the job once their work permits expire in July or whether we will have to make do on our own.”