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BARCELONA/LONDON - Fruit and vegetable harvests are underway in western Europe with seasonal workers gathering crops in top producer Spain, but costs are rising as farmers fear a third wave of COVID-19 might cause a repeat of 2020's damaging disruptions in labour supply.
Harvests rely heavily on workers from Africa and eastern Europe, but many couldn't travel a year ago as borders closed in the first wave of the pandemic. Shortages of key goods appeared in supermarkets while prices rose as consumers hoarded.
Coranavirus cases are surging again in Europe, raising the risk of crop losses and adding to farmers' costs on everything from extra transport to keep workers socially distanced to buying protective gear for seasonal labourers.
In Spain's northeastern Catalonia region, farmer Josep Cabre said he had spent about 6,000 euros ($7,000) on masks and other protective equipment for seven seasonal workers from West Africa working on his farm picking apples, pears and peaches.
"We have been lucky and, as far as we know, none of us has contracted COVID-19," Cabre said, adding that shutting his business for 15 days could mean a 150,000 euro loss.
"A bar or shop can close for 15 days ... but if I don’t pick the fruit at its right time and I do it later it would be damaged. To stop for 15 days would be an economic disaster," he added.
Cabre tries to give workers tasks to keep them distanced. He has stopped using a nine-seat van to take them to fields near the city of Lleida, instead using several vans and reimbursing transport costs to workers who travel alone.
Lleida saw a infection cluster last summer, partially linked to migrants seeking seasonal jobs to pick fruit.
This year, thousands of workers have arrived on chartered flights from Morocco to help gather crops in Spain for the first major harvest of strawberries in the southern Huelva province.
"COVID measures have forced us to take on more people to do the same job," Fernando Gomez of Murcia's Proexport growers organisation said, adding that a hike in Spain's minimum wage also put pressure on margins.
Growers in Germany still expect to have enough workers from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere for the asparagus harvest. But workers face tougher health and safety checks.
"The extensive corona-regulations and hygiene measures are creating great challenges, both organisational and financial,” Daniela Rixen, spokesperson for the LKSH agricultural chamber representing farmers in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Bernhard Kruesken, secretary general of German national farming association DBV, said normally about 300,000 seasonal harvest workers come to Germany every year but fewer are expected in 2021 for the second year running.