Ukraine workers skirt lockdowns to rescue European farms

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Kiev (AFP)

In an almost empty terminal at Boryspil airport in Kiev, Yuriy was waiting in a busy line of 200 seasonal workers to check in for a lone flight to Finland.

The flight was an exception after Ukraine closed its borders and grounded air travel in March to contain the coronavirus, stranding Ukrainian labourers who would usually be harvesting crops on farms throughout Europe.

Faced with the prospect of fruit and vegetables rotting in fields, farmers in countries including the United Kingdom and Finland moved to solve the problem by chartering flights for workers.

"Salaries in Ukraine are too low," said 35-year-old Yuriy, who declined to give his last name. "You can't do anything with it."

It will be his third trip to Finland, during which he expects to make around 7,500 euros ($8,100) over five months picking lettuce and broccoli -- nearly four times what he would make as a forklift driver at home.

He is among tens of thousands of Ukrainian seasonal workers who travel every year to pick fruit on farms in western European countries like the UK, Finland and Poland after failing to find well-paid jobs at home.

- 'Illogical' to leave -

The ex-Soviet nation with a population of 40 million is one of the poorest countries in Europe and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic threatens to put additional financial pressure on struggling Ukrainians.

Health officials in Kiev, which earlier this week eased a lockdown imposed in March to slow the virus, registered 17,330 coronavirus cases and 476 deaths as of Friday.

The return of Ukraine's seasonal labourers comes as leaders throughout Europe cautiously open borders and ease lockdowns to get stalled economies moving again.

Finland's ambassador to Ukraine, Paivi Laine, said Helsinki had decided to allow the flights even though the country's borders were closed because the government "realised that we will need some workers from abroad."

She said some 1,500 seasonal labourers had been given permission to enter and that around two-thirds of those were Ukrainians, who are seen by Finnish farmers as "reliable" workers.

Yet Kiev was reluctant to let its workers leave at first, believing travel posed a serious health risk and that there was enough work in the country, even for around two million Ukrainians who returned home as the pandemic gathered pace.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in April said it would be "illogical" to allow Ukrainians to leave when the country was working to return citizens stranded abroad.

- 'Work, make money' -

One flight carrying seasonal workers to the United Kingdom in April was delayed for nine hours after the state aviation service refused to give permission for take off.

But a storm of angry comments on social media accusing the government of unfairly keeping workers in the country helped force a shift in Kiev's policy.

Deputy Prime Minister Prystaiko said this month that dozens of Austrian companies were waiting for more than 800 Ukrainian workers to arrive to the country.

He conceded that salaries were better abroad and said Kiev was negotiating to send "thousands" of Ukrainians to Finland.

Waiting in the check-in line, 32-year-old Mykola who is returning to Finland welcomed the government's decision to allow workers to depart, saying many seasonal labourers and their families would benefit.

Now that the politics and bureaucracy are out of the way, "it's time to go to work, make money, and then come back home happy," he told AFP.