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Finland, Sweden Accused of Exploiting Berry Pickers from Thailand



Finland, Sweden Accused of Exploiting Berry Workers from Thailand

Thai workers who have travelled to Northern Europe as berry pickers are urging the government to increase efforts to combat labour exploitation.

Every year, stories of berry pickers in distress reach the public eye, with complaints about misleading enticements, unfair work contracts, long hours of work, unfulfilled promises of handsome pay, and exorbitant fees charged by labour brokers.

Berry picking has become something of a dream job for those looking to significantly increase their earnings.

Some return home with enough money to build new homes and repay their debts, while others find themselves in dire financial straits.

Various types of wild berries are in high demand, with Sweden and Finland exporting large quantities for use in the food and cosmetics industries, with Japan, China, and other European countries being major importers.
Ideal job

Between August and October each year, up to 10,000 Thais travel to Sweden and Finland to work as berry pickers, mostly from the northeastern provinces of Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, and Chaiyaphum.

Around this time of year, villagers have finished working in the rice fields and are waiting for their crops to mature so that they can be harvested by the end of the year.

Many people look for extra income during this time, and working as berry pickers in Sweden and Finland is a popular option as they seek a higher income to help change their lives for the better.

Berry Pickers Under Contract

Thai berry pickers in Sweden work under contracts with Thai labour exporters and Swedish companies in need of seasonal workers. Berries are collected in the wild, and these Swedish companies purchase them from Thai berry pickers.

According to the contract, Thai and Swedish companies must guarantee a monthly minimum wage of at least 23,183 Swedish krona or 81,372 baht for workers during this seasonal year, as stipulated by the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union.

This means that if Thai berry pickers sell the fruit to Swedish companies at a lower price than the guaranteed income, the companies must make up the difference in order to meet the income guarantee requirement.

If the berries sell for more than the price guarantee, the company is not required to pay.

Thai berry pickers in Finland are granted special visas, and the companies that send them there are designated as coordinators.

Accommodation, food, and car rentals are provided by the Finnish and Swedish companies that employ them.
Promises not kept

Forced to work exhausting hours

A Phetchabun villager who did not want to be identified told the Bangkok Post that he went to Sweden in 2009 to work as a berry picker. He worked for a company that was authorized to send workers to pick berries in the wild there.

During the fruit-picking season, he said he had to get up at 3-4 a.m. and work until 10-11 p.m. every day.

“It was extremely exhausting. But I had to make the most of every minute in order to make enough money to pay off my debt,” he explained. He claimed that the company refused to honour the contract that guaranteed workers a monthly minimum wage.

According to the company, the contract was created solely to comply with Labour Ministry procedures and to apply for visas. “The contract exists only on paper… “After that experience, I’m not going back,” he said.

Mr. Ath, 36, a construction worker in Pathum Thani, decided to join a group of 61 people, mostly from the Northeast, to work as seasonal workers in Sweden from July 13 to September 29.

“To facilitate our journey, everyone had to pay 12,000 baht up front and another lump sum to the agent. We signed a contract with the company for a loan of 130,000 baht for those who did not have money, such as myself “He stated.

The money was for air tickets, visa fees, accident and health insurance, car rental, and loan interest, but they still had to pay for personal expenses such as food, lodging, and fuel.

In Sweden, he and his team worked 14-20 hours a day, beginning at 3 a.m. and often lasting until 9 p.m., in order to maximize their hours and earnings.

His contract, he claimed, clearly stated a monthly minimum income of 80,000 baht, even if berry supplies were low.

Owing money upon returning home

However, when he returned home after finishing the job, he discovered that he had not received the expected deposit into his account for his labour. Worse, the company that hired him informed him that he owed them 20,000 baht for their services.

Early this month, a group of Thai berry pickers petitioned Suthep Ou-on, a Move Forward Party MP and chairman of a House labour committee, to investigate a company that sends Thai workers to pick berries in Sweden.

When the workers returned to Thailand, the company informed them that they owed it 20,000-30,000 baht, which they considered unfair.

Mr Suthep stated that he had invited officials from state agencies such as the Department of Employment and the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare to discuss the situation.

He claimed that Thai berry pickers were treated unfairly because their contracts provided no labour protection, particularly in terms of a guaranteed minimum wage.

Mr Suthep said he would ask the Labour Ministry to step up efforts to address the issue, including revoking licenses and placing companies on a blacklist that fail to honour contracts.

According to a lawyer who requested anonymity, the exploitation of Thai berry pickers is a long-standing issue because workers must bear high expenses and struggle on their own.

Berry pickers in the wild are at the mercy of Mother Nature, or the weather, which determines seasonal yield, he added.

“Executives at the Labour Ministry must ensure workers have adequate legal protection and that companies follow through on the contracts they promise,” he said.

According to the law, companies that export workers are responsible for all travel expenses, he added.

“However, some companies charge fees and other expenses for lodging and food,” the lawyer said, adding that the Labour Ministry must ensure that workers receive the wages promised.

Guaranteed incomes ignored

The refusal of the companies to comply with income guarantees, according to Samarn Laodamrongchai, an academic at Chulalongkorn University’s Asian Studies Institute, is the bane of many Thai berry pickers.

Thai workers have told him that after other expenses were deducted, they did not earn as much as they expected. “They said it wasn’t worth the time and effort,” Samarn explained.

According to Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin, the ministry is stepping up efforts to resolve the issue.

Employers in Sweden are required by law to comply with income guarantee contracts for berry pickers.

“Workers can file complaints with the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare, and the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare will order employers to pay the guaranteed amount,” Mr Suchart explained.

According to him, officials in Finland want Thai workers to be registered as seasonal workers, similar to those in Sweden.

He also stated that the Department of Labor has issued a regulation requiring companies sending workers to Finland to deposit approximately 30,000 baht with banks as a guarantee for each worker.

If problems arise, the money will help workers, according to the minister.

Finnish company fined

According to Pairoj Chotikasathien, director-general of the Department of Employment, companies that export workers to Sweden and Finland must not be blacklisted or face legal action for labour exploitation in the 2023 seasonal year.

If they do not resolve worker issues, they will be denied permission to send workers or have their worker quota reduced, he said.

The owner of Friend Berries Co, Ratthamanun Meerahannok, emphasized the importance of employers honouring contracts because it will affect the quota of labour exports in the following seasonal year.

Workers typically earn around 160,000 baht during the two-month period in which they pick berries, while incurring expenses of 130,000 baht. According to him, the minimum income guarantee helps to alleviate their financial burden.

A Finnish Supreme Court sentenced the owner of a Finnish company to one year and ten months in prison in January on charges of labour exploitation and human trafficking. However, the sentence was suspended.

The decision came in response to a petition filed by 26 Thai berry pickers.

According to the court, the company’s accommodations were inadequate.

Furthermore, the company seized Thai workers’ passports and return air tickets, while the workers were forced to bear exorbitant and unreasonable costs, according to the court.

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