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Denis Digel, Manager at the 'Vegetables of France' Organisation (Legumes de France) told Reuters that government advisor Christophe Malvezin has suggested to the organisations' president to use cheap temporary labour from Eastern Europe as seasonal agricultural workers in order to reduce production costs, France 24 reports.
Digel said "They (the government) want to help us to set up structures for hiring temporary employees abroad. That is not at all what the industry wants to do."
Malvezin, who is Agricultural Consultant to President Sarkozy, denies that he had made such a suggestion. He said "I simply want us to analyse what happens in other more competitive countries, which use such temporary labourers and learn from their experience."
"The fact that the Germans bring over Polish temporary employees at a Polish wage level does not mean that we have to do the same thing in France but we have to analyse properly where we stand," he added.
The subject brings back extremely sore memories of the so-called 'Bolkestein Directive' of the European Union (EU), which was substantially amended due to very strong political and union opposition, particularly in France and Belgium.
The directive would have allowed temporary employment agencies to supply staff from any EU country at the conditions of the country of origin. It was popularly named 'Frankenstein Directive' and became a major argument against the European Constitution in the 2005 referendum in France, which ended in a 'no' vote.
French fruit and vegetable farmers have for years complained about what they call 'competition distortion' in neighbouring EU countries.
It is claimed that in Germany, where farmers are exonerated from paying any extra charges on seasonal agricultural labour and where there is no minimum wage, agricultural labour cost is 6 Euro per hour.
In France, the minimum wage is 8.82 Euro. Including extra charges, labour cost per hour was 11.30 Euro up until October this year. This should come down to 10.50 now that President Sarkozy has announced exoneration on employer charges for seasonal agricultural staff.
Denis Digel says on the measure "[the exoneration] does not solve the problem but we cannot tolerate bringing in foreign workers when we are fighting against local unemployment. With unemployment this high, there is absolutely no shortage of agricultural labourers in France".
Fruit and vegetable producers in France have for years demanded that employer and social charges on agricultural labour cost should be replaced with a 'social VAT' on all fruit and vegetables, whether the country of origin is France or elsewhere.