FINLAND – A group of about 50 Thai berry pickers working in Saarijärvi, eastern Finland, have filed a criminal complaint with the police against their employer. They claim to be victims of human trafficking. A human rights lawyer for the group is speculating that the case will be a difficult one.
The group of Thai berry pickers at the centre of the controversy is being represented by human rights lawyer Ville Hoikkala.This year about 4,000 pickers received visas for the seasonal work.
“According to the pickers they were lent money by the Sotkamo business Ber-Ex Oy in Thailand at very high interest rates in order to buy their passage to Finland. They came to pick berries and to pay off their debt by selling those berries,” Hoikkala explained.
However Kari Jansa, chief executive of Ber-Ex, has refuted the berry pickers’ claims.
“The berry pickers have camped in areas where the berry crop is over or it has not yet come in. There has also been conflicting information coming from Ber-Ex about the amount of money that the workers owe the company,” the lawyer added.
The seasonal workers now fear that they will not be in a position to pay off their debts to the company.
“They feel that they were misinformed back in Thailand about how much they would be able to earn here in Finland,” Hoikkala said.
Workers without contracts
The lawyer explained that Ber-Ex representatives used language that gave the workers the impression that they have a work contract; there has been talk of the workers being on strike. However they have no employment agreements.
“No. The berry pickers’ basic problem is that according to Finnish law they are not employees, but entrepreneurs. When they pick berries, they become the owners of the goods, which they then sell onwards. In this sense they cannot claim the protection of workers’ rights,” Hoikkala pointed out.
“However the situation is such that the human trafficking claim will be investigated. The police here in Saarijärvi have acted professionally and the investigation will no doubt be challenging,” he added.
The lawyer said that the berry pickers have terminated all cooperation with Ber-Ex.
Crime definition may change
Kainuu police are investigating the criminal report since the company that organised the recruitment of the berry pickers from Thailand is based in Sotkamo.
The pickers will remain in Finland, at least until they have provided the police with official statements.
Kainuu police have said that they are still to determine the exact nature of the alleged crime committed. They added that the moniker “human trafficking” may even change as the investigation progresses.
Police were also unable to say whether or not they would have to question all of the complainants or whether a few individual statements would suffice.