An Antwerp charter flight company is to begin flying seasonal workers from Romania to work in the border area between Belgium and the Netherlands to help bring in the fruit harvest.
The first flight is expected shortly at Eindhoven airport, with more to follow. At present, the main Belgian airports – Brussels, Charleroi, Antwerp and Ostend – are closed to non-essential traffic, while Liege has become the northern European hub for medical equipment.
But flights of seasonal workers are permitted, according to Carl Legein, CEO of The Aviation Factory based at Antwerp.
“An entire economic sector is depending on these flights,” he told the VRT. “Fruit and vegetables can’t just spend a couple of weeks longer in the fields.”
The special charter flights from Romania are billed as “business travel,” and as such are subject to less regulation than other travel under the coronavirus regulations.
It remains uncertain, the VRT reports, whether the seasonal workers will be screened for infection on arrival.
Belgium’s fruit and vegetable growers are currently missing 15,000 to 20,000 workers, most of them from Eastern Europe for the harvest, said the farmers’ union Boerenbond.
In theory, they should still be allowed to come for the harvest under the coronavirus regulations, but the union has reported problems at the border, with police turning workers back under the impression that their journey is not permitted.
Now federal home affairs minister Pieter De Crem (CD&V) has issued a clarification.
“Such a journey is considered essential travel,” he said. “Once they enter our territory, these seasonal workers will be subject to the same measures as everyone else.” The only condition is that workers must be able to present a letter from their employer.
Police in border areas have been informed of the situation, De Crem said.
The permission could not have come at a more opportune moment. The months of May and June are crucial months for the fruit and vegetable harvest. Since the start of the lockdown, more than 1,000 people have signed up with the Flemish employment agency VDAB to work in the fields, among them 620 people who are permanently unemployed and others on temporary unemployment.