The coronavirus crisis has provided refugees and winegrowers in southwest France with an unusual opportunity: potential jobs for unemployed migrants and a brand new workforce for farmers facing a shortage of seasonal workers. The association Ovale Citoyen is behind the initiative.
Prior to France’s near two-month COVID-19 lockdown, 22-year-old refugee Arshad from Afghanistan worked as a carpenter in Bordeaux, in the Aquitaine region. But when the lockdown came into effect on March 17, his carpentry jobs were suddenly put on hold, and a new line of work presented itself: working in the region’s vineyards.
The Ovale Citoyen, an association which normally works to integrate migrants and disadvantaged youths into society through rugby, came up with the idea when it saw the extent to which the coronavirus crisis was hitting both the region’s migrants and farmers. The association provided Arshad with two days of practical training, and he is now happily working in the fields. “When we talk to him about agriculture, his eyes start to sparkle,” Jeff Puech, the president of the association, says.
Arshad is among 70 people who were given fast-track agriculture training during the lockdown. “The idea came after we made two observations: One, that all our refugees and disadvantaged youths would suffer on a professional level from the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s already complicated enough for them to find work, so with an economic crisis brewing…,” Puech says. “And two: the agricultural sector is lacking people [because the crisis has resulted in border closures and thus a steep drop in seasonal workers mainly from Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey, eds note]. In the Aquitaine region, agriculture is a main economic driver.”
The association decided to connect the two groups by acting as a “temporary employment agency” run by volunteers. After receiving the go-ahead from local authorities, the association set up its “A drop in the field” project, named after the rugby drop goal.
‘Many didn’t even know what a vine was’
“Staff at one of the vineyards put an apprentice scheme into place,” says Puech. “Some of the apprentices already had some knowledge of farming, while others didn’t even know what a vine stock was. We taught them how to prune and debud, which entails cutting off excess branches on a vine stock.”
Since then, 38 people, aged between 18 and 48, have already started working in the fields. Of them, 75% are recognized refugees – mainly from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia – and 10% are people who live "in very precarious situations, sometimes housed in emergency accommodation", while the remainder come from underprivileged areas in Bordeaux.
In it for the long haul
The initiative echoes an appeal launched by France’s agriculture minister in March in which he called on people who were out of work to join “the great army of French farmers”, who due to the COVID-19 crisis faced a shortage of 200,000 seasonal workers.
The “A drop in the fields” initiative has received a warm welcome. "The reaction from the farming community has been more than favorable, very positive," Puech says. “It basically never happens that someone says: ‘no, I don’t want these people in my fields!’. On the contrary, we get calls from farmers who’ve heard of the project and who are interested in joining.”
Due to the surge in demand, Ovale Citoyen, which has also organized food operations for 900 people a week since mid-March, plans to set up a new round of training programs. It has already found 150 new participants and hopes to have put between 200 and 220 people to work at the height of the farming season. “Some have signed work contracts for six months, up until the end of the grape harvest,” Puech says. "Others have signed contracts for two to three months, which is common in the sector." But many already hope to be in it for the long haul.
Lack of tractor drivers
“Many of them have told me they want to continue working in the agriculture sector. There’s a huge lack of tractor drivers, for example, which could represent an opportunity,” Puech says. “This project, which was initially set up as a response to the crisis, may well become long-term.” But he says that it would be conditional on the fact that the workers, who often have neither driver’s licences nor their own cars, would be supported in order to get to the farms and fields that are not served by local transport. “There should be a driver’s licence scheme put into place for the refugees,” he says.
In the meantime, the association’s main activity, rugby, is not expected to resume anytime soon. "During a rugby game, there is a lot of physical contact and we don't want to take any risks with the coronavirus," he says. But some refugees have proposed an alternative solution. “More and more have asked me to play cricket. But that’s just not possible,” Puech laughs.