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Germany eyes special measures for seasonal workers despite travel curbs

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BERLIN, March 17 (Reuters) - Germany is mulling measures for seasonal workers from Eastern Europe to avoid labour shortages in the asparagus harvest and other agriculture sectors following travel restrictions due to the coronavirus, the agriculture minister said.

Germany has temporarily introduced border controls on its frontiers with Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Denmark in a bid to curb the spread of the infection.

Neighbouring Poland, the source of many of Germany's seasonal workers and an important transit country for such workers from other Eastern European countries, has banned foreigners from entering its territory. It has also imposed a 14-day quarantine on citizens returning home to try to protect Poland against the disease.

German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, told reporters on Tuesday she was working on measures to guarantee that seasonal workers could still come to Germany and work in the fields.

Kloeckner said she had already been in talks with Lufthansa to see whether seasonal workers could be flown into the country despite the travel restrictions at some borders.

The proposal was based on the precondition that the seasonal workers must be healthy and can provide medical proof that they are not infected with the new virus, Kloeckner added.

Another idea is to temporarily ease the time limit for seasonal workers who are currently allowed to work a maximum of 70 days, the minister said.

The government is also looking into setting incentives for people from sectors where work is currently at a standstill due to the coronavirus so that they temporarily switch their job and work in agriculture, Kloeckner added.

Farmers' Association President Joachim Ruckwied urged the government to act quickly, pointing to massive labour shortages in light of the imminent start of the asparagus harvest and the growing of other vegetables.

Germany's agriculture sector relies on some 286,000 seasonal workers every year, mostly from countries in Eastern Europe such as Poland, Ukraine and Romania. (Reporting by Michael Nienaber, Editing by William Maclean)