New German labour laws limiting the number of registered Polish agricultural workers are threatening harvests across the country.

In an attempt to ensure the hiring of German workers and reduce the country’s crippling 15% unemployment rate, only 80% of registered Polish workers from 2005 are being allowed to work in 2006.

But finding German workers prepared to do what is often very laborious and low-paid work is proving almost impossible – effectively meaning that vineyards have lost 20% of their staff.

Poles can earn as much in an hour in Germany as they would in a day in Poland. But for the Germans, the agricultural salary is still very small, and less in most cases than the equivalent earned on welfare.

Ernst Loosen of Dr Loosen in Mosel told decanter.com, ‘It’s not just affecting vineyards. The asparagus harvest is down 10% on last year, the strawberry harvest down 15% – and come September, it’s going to be our turn.’

‘We have 8 less people in the vineyard this year because of the quota, and can’t find Germans willing to take on the work. In effect, this means we have to concentrate our efforts on the grand cru vineyards, and do the best we can with the others.’

Eva Fricke, manager at Weingut Josef Leitz in Rüdesheim, has had a similar experience. ‘We had 24 Polish workers in 2005, which means we are allowed 20 this year.’

Employers may register for more foreign workers but first they have to ‘try out’ Germans. ‘In reality, once you have ‘tried’ these Germans, and filled out the paperwork explaining why they are no help, four to six weeks will have gone and with them the main harvest season. It is ridiculous,’ Fricke said.

‘Agriculture and viticulture rely on cheap and flexible labour because of the dependency on the weather. Especially for high quality estates, it is extremely important to work ‘with the season’ and that is only possible if you have access to workers at the right time of the year.’

Loosen said, ‘The situation will be regulated in 2012, when new members of the EU such as Poland will be brought in line with other states, but my vineyard isn’t going to stop needing attention for the next six years. If this was France, the vineyard owners would be barricading parliament, but because it’s Germany, we grumble but accept it. The Germans like a revolution without any disturbance to their routine.’

Written by Jane Anson