The fresh produce company Keelings has been at the centre of controversy on social media for more than 24 hours after it emerged that 189 fruit pickers from Bulgaria had arrived on a Ryanair flight yesterday chartered by the company. 

 

Keelings said that “a very important part of our workforce for many years has been our skilled seasonal workers who return to us to help pick our fruit and manage our plant health.  Without these seasonal workers it would be impossible to bring fresh Irish strawberries to the Irish market.”

However, many posts on social media queried the need to fly in workers when so many are now unemployed because of  the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Could #keelings not have employed all the teenagers and students sitting around doing nothing? I’ve a 16 year old who would love to get out and work but keeps being told he has to be 18?? Years ago loads of friends of mine in Swords all worked picking fruit as teenagers.,” was one comment on Twitter.

Many queried the motivation for flying workers in from abroad.

“I for one know that one of the agencies who hires the #keelings workers does not provide minimum wage but instead is allowed pay workers in Bulgaria and Hungary at a much lower rate of pay. To my shame I once used an agency for my own business in 2008,” wrote one Louth man.

 

“Can people stop saying that flying in workers is okay because ‘Irish people won’t do the jobs’ it’s insulting to immigrants to reduce their value to that of servants doing jobs we won’t. #keelings remarked one Twitter user.

The Irish Freedom Party said the controversy “exposes the scandal of free movement in the EU. For Irish workers , it means unfair competition for jobs and lower wages. Free movement suits business . It keeps wages low and undermines working conditions for our workers.”

 

Many commentators rejected the charges of ‘racism’ levelled at those critical of Keelings. “It seems okay to say Irish are too lazy to pick fruit and veg. #keelings” wrote this woman.

 

Most were at pains to point out that the issue was not with the Bulgarian workers, which some saw as being endangered by the move.

“Bulgaria has nearly twice the population and has less than 10% of cases and deaths as Ireland. It’s like Italy bringing in 100’s of Irish workers at the height of their outbreak. Ireland should be ashamed risking Bulgarians lives so we can have fruit + veg for next year #keelings wrote one such post.

Others defended Keelings from the barrage of criticism.

“Whilst the optics for #keelings wasn’t great the truth is that nobody was applying for the jobs advertised since March and without these workers coming in the crop would be lost. But I suppose nothing beats a bit of mass hysteria on social media. #getoveryourselves”, wrote one commentator.

 

And said the outrage was misplaced:

 

In a statement Keelings said “It is essential that we have adequate staffing on the farm to pick crops quickly as they ripen, or we risk shortages in the market”.

“We are also recruiting for local workers to join us in picking our crops on the farm along with other roles in the Keelings business.” the company said.  “We again want to assure people that no horticulture worker coming from another region will be asked to work without a full 14 days restricted movement.’”

Peadar Tóibín TD said more flights are on the way, and that they should be halted until the crisis was over.

“It has been reported to me that another flight will land in Dublin today with a large number of fruit pickers for north Dublin. Either the country is in lockdown or its not. Either we are all in this together or we are not. These flights need to be stopped until the crisis ends ,” he wrote.