Longform | Workers' rights

Farmers’ labor goes unvalued

By - 13.11.2023

Agricultural workers with insecure jobs face an uncertain future.

Every day before 7:00 a.m., 45-year-old Samir Hajda leaves the foothills of Rahovec and heads towards the Tekke of Sheh Muhedin, where he waits for work. In the light autumnal fog, he walks down the road in his mud-splattered work pants.

“At 6:00 a.m. I get up. Whether I have work or not, I’m used to this sleep schedule. This is when I leave the house,” he said in his Rahovec accent. Hajda’s distinctive accent can be traced back to Slavic workers and wine merchants who migrated to Rahovec at the beginning of the 19th century. They began to incorporate Albanian into their own languages, which has influenced the Rahovec accent today.

Over the last 27 years, Hajda has done this every day to find agricultural work.

“We have worked with grapes since we were children. I inherited it from my father. We used to cultivate the grapes differently, we used to grow them laid out on the ground,” he said, recalling the past.

The picturesque town of Rahovec is set amidst green vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see. This autumn, on the way out of the city towards the village of Xërxë, tractors were hard at work plowing the region’s fertile soil. Scattered between the vineyards, you can see patches of land planted with other crops and trees.

Rahovec has always been known for its grapes. A map from 1693 by Italian friar and encyclopedist Vincenzo Coronelli identifies the towns of Rahovec and Suhareka with grapes.

Rahovec is known for its centuries-old tradition of grape cultivation. Photos: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Part of a large family, Hajda used to work in his own vineyard, as traditionally did many from Rahovec, in order to survive. Some sold table grapes in the weekly markets and others sent their produce to wineries. Today, he doesn’t have his own vineyard and has been working in other people’s vineyards for several years.

Along with Hajda, about 10 other workers are waiting near the roundabout by the Tekke. The owners of the vineyards come there to hire workers and the work conditions are agreed upon on the spot.

“They come, we approach. They tell us what kind of work they have to offer and we give them our price,” said Hajda, whose fee for a day’s work is 40 euros. This marks the highest rate he has ever set, which has increased by five euros since last year. Over the last three years, rates have increased by five euros each year.

As soon as he comes to an agreement with an employer, he leaves for the vineyard. The work starts in the spring with pruning, clearing and the vines are tied onto the trellis. Then the soil is tilled, the vines are sprayed and harvested in late fall. 

His record over the years for harvesting is 1,800 kilograms of grapes per day. This season, the owner of the vineyard has earned 360 euros from one day’s harvest. Hajda’s monthly income has reached 800 euros, with which he supports his family.

“I receive my wage in cash. It’s better that way,” he said, making it clear that he has never had a contract, which would secure him physical and financial security. He has never thought about it and no one has ever offered him one.

Wearing work gloves fastened to his waist belt as his only means of protection, Hajda said that there have been instances when people have disrespected his sweat and hard work. “Someone came, he must have been from the diaspora. He said, ‘Will you work for 20 euros? Any more is not worth it.’ I refused. Then he left and came back tomorrow and said, ‘Come for any price, because I cannot find workers anywhere,'” said Hajda, who knows around 15 young workers who have emigrated in recent years from his neighborhood alone.

“There is no money to hire regular workers”

A plot of about 30 acres lies along the road between Rahovec and Xërxë. Standing among the large grape vines is 75-year-old Hajrullah Dula. He has been working in the vineyards for as long as he can remember. He owns around six hectares of vineyards around Rahovec and used to produce his own wine. With a pair of electric shears he prunes the vines and pushes the cut foliage away.

“I’m going to remove this vine. It doesn’t produce anymore. It’s not worth keeping. It must be 15 years since it was planted,” said Dula without taking his eyes off the vines.

“Are you going to replant it?” K2.0 asked him, “I don’t know, I’ll see,” he replied. A voice from two rows of vines away declares, “We are not going to plant it!”

Dula’s son, 52-year-old Sezai Dula, works tirelessly with his son Dardan. Sezai’s nephew, Albion, also works with them.

“We do all this work, and in the end the winery only pays 20 cents per kilogram. This is not normal. So, we are not going to continue the work. I’m going to remove the vines completely and then I will plow. There is no money to hire regular workers,” said Sezai.

The grandfather, along with his son and nephews, were clearing the vineyard after finishing their other jobs in a local market and a gas station. They used to hire workers, but now to hire a worker for a day they have to sell 200 kilos of grapes to the nearby winery.

As Sezai was speaking, the younger generation, Dardan and Albion, listened carefully and nodded in approval. Their hands were dirtied from collecting the wire that holds the vines to the trellis. For one of them, it was the last time he would be doing so. Soon, he will have to pack his bags to leave for Germany, where his brother already works.

“I am going to leave Kosovo. Look, do you see? You get exhausted working on the vineyards, because it really requires a lot of work, and in the end, you end up selling for 20 cents per kilogram,” said Dardan.

Hajrullah Dula, 75 years old, works with his son Sezai and nephews Dardan and Albion. Photos: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

They walked through the rows of unharvested grapevines. Ripe bunches of white muscat grapes hung forlornly as they had been ignored by the harvesters. 

The low profits, lack of a stable future in agricultural work and the migration of the younger generation have left many vineyards uncultivated and many grapes unharvested. 

Nearby, Habib Dina was filling a pick-up truck with bunches of grapes to take to Peja. His grandson was helping him stack the wooden crates one on top of the other so that they wouldn’t move during the drive. Like most other Rahovecians, Dina was born surrounded by grapes and works with them. But he finds it difficult to find workers for his vineyards, which span over eight hectares.

“There are no workers. We race with each-other to secure workers looking for a job in Rahovec. We reserve them two days in advance. A lot are leaving Kosovo,” said Dina. He said working in agriculture is insecure and attributes the small number of regular contract workers to the lack of institutional support. 

He leads the Rahovec grape growers’ association, “Kultivuesit e Rrushit,” [Grape Growers] which has 80 members. During the association meetings he receives updates about the challenges the farmers are facing. One of these problems is the reduction in the amount of vineyards and waning interest in grape cultivation due to insufficient institutional support.

“Imagine, once there were 11,000 hectares of vineyards in Kosovo, mainly in our region of Rahovec, Suhareka, Gjakova and Prizren. Now there are 3,000 or so hectares of vineyards in Rahovec. What more is there to say?” said Dina, while pointing to the hills around the road.

According to the agricultural land use statistics for 2022 from the Kosovo Agency of Statistics (KAS), vineyards account for nearly 3,500 of the over 420,000 hectares of land used in Kosovo. According to the Labor Force Survey for 2022, 9,110 agricultural workers work officially, of which 8,073 are men and 1,037 are women. These people, who work in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing category, make up only 2.2% of workers in Kosovo.

Habib Dina faces more labor shortages every day. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The employment status of many of these workers is unstable, such as those who work on their own land and those who work for free in a family business. These two groups of workers are the least likely to have a formal employment agreement. 970 people are self-employed without employees, while 1,345 people are employed without pay in the family business. 

The Quarterly Economic Bulletin issued by the Ministry of Finance, Labor and Transfers (MFPT) is based on the data of the Tax Administration of Kosovo (TAK) because there is no data from KAS. In the average extracted from the four three-month bulletins from 2022, it appears that the number of workers registered in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is 19,120.

This figure indicates that each worker has around 22 hectares of land to cultivate, which is hardly manageable. These figures are not the same as official data from Kosovo’s institutions due to high levels of informal labor. 

 The lack of employment contracts means no social assistance

A number of developments have influenced this year to be one of the most difficult years in agriculture and low yields have led to elevated prices for fruits and vegetables.

Agroeconomist Hartim Gashi, who leads the Association of Fruits and Vegetable Processors of Kosovo (PePeKo), which gathers 32 local companies, said there are several reasons for this. According to him, the first reason is unusual weather conditions.

“The planting of peppers and other vegetables should have been finished by May 15 or June 15 at the latest. This year it ended in the first week of July. Because of this delay, most farmers have incurred 30% losses,” he said, adding that he has never witnessed more rainfall than he did leading up to the beginning of July. The second reason he attributes to the lack of labor force.

In the last three or four years, the agricultural sector has also been affected by the migration of workers to the European Union. Difficult and poorly paid work has meant that agriculture is not seen as a desirable sector to work in. This migration has left cropland owners facing an unanticipated labor cost.

“Workers used to be paid 15 euros. This year the minimum was 30 euros for harvesting peppers. 10 workers make 300 euros. To earn 300 euros, you have to sell 3,000 kilos of peppers,” said Gashi, who is worried about what the future holds.

KAS data indicates a sharp decrease in the number of workers in agriculture, forestry and fishing over the years. While there are no separate figures for each sector, the overall number of workers in these industries was 16,900 in 2020. By 2022 this figure had almost halved, with only 9,110 registered workers, 46% less than in 2020.

The challenges of finding seasonal agricultural workers are not unique to Kosovo. However, unlike Kosovo, many other countries have created programs that offer incentives to support young men and women who want to work in this sector.

Agriculture in Kosovo is now sustained by those who plant on their own land and sell their produce to earn additional income, as well as by those who rely on agriculture as their primary source of income. 

Agriculture workers who work on their own land also occasionally join the labor force on a temporary basis. One example is Krenar, who did not want to be identified by his real name. He comes from a village in Podujeva, known for growing raspberries and peppers.

From the ninth grade, Krenar has been working on plots owned by others at a rate of 12.50 to 15 euros per day. He considers the most difficult part of the job to be planting peppers by hand, although he does not see any danger in it. 

Many agricultural workers feel that paying pension contributions would reduce their already low salary. The rising cost of living makes it difficult for them to plan for the future, when they need the money right away.

“Usually work starts at 4:00 in the morning, while it is still cool. Planting by hand is very tiring, the other parts don’t require so much work or effort,” said the 28-year-old who has planted almost two hectares of his own land.

When he needs to hire workers, he plans to pay them 40 to 45 euros a day, which has been the  standard rate in Podujeva throughout 2023. However, finding workers at this price has become difficult. Krenar said that the employment structure has changed as a result of migration. This has led to the employment of more Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian workers in agriculture and other sectors in Kosovo — workers who have often been discriminated against in the labor market.

Krenar said that whenever he needs workers, he picks them up by car and provides them with food and drinks. He pays them at the end of each work day.

Krenar has mentioned the possibility of a work contract to some of his employees. According to him, they are hesitant to accept it because a contract involves making pension contributions which would reduce their already low salary. Due to a 4.2% increase in living costs this year because of inflation, workers find it difficult to plan for the future when they need the money right away. Workers who are unsure that they will be able to secure daily work and work for low wages are hesitant to agree to taxation through a contract, unlike those who work consistently for 12 months.

The Labor Law in Kosovo recognizes employment contracts for an indefinite period, for a specific period and for specific work (not longer than 120 days in a year). Seasonal work is not specified in the Law.

Many workers who do not accept a contract feel that the money deducted for pension contributions would be wasted. An analysis on the engagement of seasonal workers in Kosovo, published by the Democracy for Development Institute (D4D) states that “most workers consider pension contributions as lost income.”

The situation is similar for agricultural businesses in Mamusha and the lack of workers has meant more workers from the Gorani minority are being hired.

“In Mamusha, they hire women from the areas where the Gorani minority lives,” said Gashi from PePeKo, who points out similar to Krenar, these employers pick up the workers by car and provide food as well as daily wage. “The employers race with each other to be the first to get these workers who are recruited in March or April,” he added, showing that the producers have started noticing that it is getting difficult.

The reluctance to accept job contracts is also influenced by how Kosovo’s state social schemes function. When beneficiaries accept job contracts they have to leave the scheme and lose their benefits.

This causes these workers to work as part of the informal economy, which results in inaccurate employment statistics from KAS. To solve this problem, The German Society For International Cooperation and PePeKo proposed a model — first implemented by the Government of Serbia — to the Government of Kosovo. 

“The system is that seasonal workers who receive social benefits, during the time when they have the opportunity to find work as seasonal workers for up to six months, are not removed from social benefits. In Kosovo, when you receive a contract, the scheme is stopped,” said Gashi from PePeKo. He added that within one year of this model being implemented in Serbia, the number of registered workers increased by 10,000.

The challenge of registering seasonal workers has been tackled differently through the region. Croatia has implemented a voucher scheme for seasonal and casual agricultural workers. Employers purchase vouchers to pay seasonal workers, which also cover social contributions and taxes. The employer is responsible for providing the employee with a daily voucher for each recorded working day, through which the employee’s tax obligations are also paid. Unused vouchers are returned by the employer to the state office where they were originally purchased and the employer is reimbursed.

No similar initiative has been introduced in Kosovo, where agricultural workers are not given any special attention. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development (MAFDR) has not answered as to whether it has data on the number of agricultural workers. It has acknowledged possessing data on the beneficiaries of the Rural Development Program, through which farmers receive financial support from the government. However, the Ministry did not provide the data.

The Ministry also stated that it has no responsibility to control the labor market, although it has been monitoring the beneficiaries of these grants for the last five years.

“What the Ministry is doing and intends to achieve is to monitor the jobs that the beneficiary has created from the support of the Ministry’s programs. This is done for five years, as long as the monitoring period lasts,” was the Ministry’s response. The Labor Inspectorate has not answered regarding monitoring working conditions in agriculture.

However, the analysis on the engagement of seasonal workers in Kosovo carried out by D4D recommends that the subsidy schemes be examined in the “promotional phase” with awareness campaigns and direct contact with farmers, strengthening the promotion of registered and declared work.

Within the framework of the one-year Program for Rural Development – Grants, the MAFDR has set criteria that if an owner wants to receive 20 additional points to be evaluated for receiving the grant, they must register four employed workers. Having 20 more points favors them in receiving the financial assistance of the government grant.

This program is announced annually; this year it opened on October 30. The announcement specifies that businesses that declare the employment of workers must provide evidence of payment of pension contributions and taxes for one month prior. This is a measure to encourage businesses to declare workers, although the Ministry has not shared the data regarding previous grant calls.

A bleak future for agriculture

The number of those who left Kosovo differs according to various sources. In Germany, according to the Federal Office of German Statistics, the number of Kosovar immigrants increased by 86% between 2010 and 2022, from 291,000 to 542,000.

“In 2022, out of a total of 300,000 individuals who declared their reason for immigrating to Germany, such as family reunification and asylum seeking, among others, 64,000 cited employment as their primary reason.” Krenar from Podujeva and Dardan from Rahovec will also go with work visas, leaving 45-year-old Hajda to be the youngest worker.

Given this context, those involved in agriculture are concerned that the anticipated visa liberalization for Kosovars in January 2024 may lead to a further decline in the number of workers within the sector. Gashi from PePeKo connects this to its potential impact on the agricultural production cycle. In late January and early February, when preparations for planting start, construction work begins in Germany. According to him, farmers seek informal employment abroad. This means that they will have left when the time for agricultural preparations comes in April.

Dardan and Albion help in the vineyards, but they are thinking of leaving Kosovo. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

“Even the ones who planted before will leave the country and go to work abroad, and will not have time to prepare the harvest because they will be there. Then they will return in May, June, July and will stay in Kosovo. By the time the harvest starts in August, September and October, they will be gone,” he said.

Despite Gashi’s bleak forecast, a more hopeful situation is presented in the Government of Kosovo’s planning documents. The Program for Economic Reform 2023 – 2025 in the agricultural sector states that agriculture enables the creation of new jobs and that structural changes are anticipated in this sector. However, these documents do not provide details on the impact of the workers departing from the sector.

Besides the current lack of labor force, there is another trend that is causing challenges for Kosovo’s agriculture sector.

In Kosovo, the lack of workers has been increasing production costs. According to Gashi, this has led fruit and vegetable processing companies to shift their focus towards alternative markets, such as Albania, where the production yield is higher and therefore the prices are lower.

Due to the unfavorable conditions of market networks in Kosovo, some of the local companies that process fruits and vegetables have also chosen to export their goods. According to Gashi, these factors include additional payment for product registration, additional payment for product positioning and annual bonuses to the market. On top of this, they must pay from 500 to 1,500 euros to introduce the product into a new distribution location. 

However, the export orientation of processing companies does not translate into more stable employment for workers in Kosovo.

By taking orders months in advance, processing companies plan to produce all the stock in a short period of time so that they do not need many working days for workers, who are seasonal and often unregistered.

To fill the gap created by the lack of labor, businesses have started hiring workers from Asian countries. This trend is expected to strengthen in the coming years. 

According to research by Radio Free Europe, in the period between January and June of this year, 1,858 requests for residence permits in Kosovo for work purposes were submitted by foreign citizens. Meanwhile, 1,391 have already obtained temporary residence permits, which is a slight increase from last year when 1,317 received permits.

Although workers can come from all over the world, this will not solve the chronic difficulties in the labor market in Kosovo. They, together with the colleagues they find here, will continue to face the difficulties of working in an unstable environment.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union in the scope of the “Protecting and Promoting Labour Rights of Vulnerable Groups in the Labour Market” project.
Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0 and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union, ATRC or BIRN Kosovo.

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