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The last unruly summer of berries?

We’ve been made aware that the Ministry of Employment and the Economy might be planning on bringing the Finnish labour law to apply to foreign berry pickers. This change is much needed; the situation with foreign berry pickers has been unbearable for a long time.

Until now, berry pickers arriving in Finland mainly from Thailand have crossed the border with a tourist visa and without an employment contract, therefore also without employee rights or any form of pay security. For example, last summer the hourly pay of some berry pickers resulted as low as 20 euros a day despite 15-hour working days; and dozens of berry pickers were unable to cover their expenses, such as travel costs they had paid using loans. Having to return home with a debt can mean a life-long disaster for the berry pickers and their families.

A typical chain of exploitation

The report on the working conditions of foreign berry pickers commissioned by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was published earlier this year. The aim of the report was to ensure that the conditions are in line with the international labour standards Finland is committed to, and that berry pickers will not be left to face financial losses due to the costs of working as berry pickers.

This is a clear indicator of the mind-set according to which foreign berry pickers shouldn’t be expected to gain the same level of income as their Finnish counterparts – instead, making ends meet is considered sufficient. The same idea was expressed by the CEO of Scandinavian Berry in an interview by YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, where he voiced his amazement at the thought of having to guarantee berry pickers a monthly salary of 900 euros, 8-hour working days and weekends off work. ”Finnish berry pickers would be queuing to work for us under these conditions”, he pointed out.

If in luck, berry pickers can earn multiple times the amount they would at home in Thailand. However, importing foreign berry pickers to Finland represents a typical chain of exploitation, where at every stage there is someone taking advantage of the berry pickers, both in Thailand and Finland.

Berry pickers carry the risks

Finnish berry buyers invite the berry pickers through coordinators working as subcontractors. These companies are in charge of the work done by berry pickers, who more often than not aren’t familiar with Finland and its language. Berry companies point the locations for berry picking, set the daily targets, and arrange accommodation and tools, upon which the berry pickers are dependent in order to do their jobs. Hence the berry pickers can in no way be deemed independent entrepreneurs, although this has previously been suggested as one solution for the situation.

Because arranging accommodation, meals, and transportation is a form of business for the companies involved, they might invite as many berry pickers as possible, irrespective of the pickers’ prospective income. In a bad year, a poor crop or in a good year, the oversupply of berries affect the berry pickers’ salary tremendously. If stocks are packed with berries from the previous year, berry pickers might not be pointed to good spots for picking; this way berry companies outsource the risks to be carried by the pickers themselves.

The dependency between berry pickers and berry companies is made more complex by the fact that in some cases the companies contribute to the loans carried by the pickers, for example by paying for their flights. Some recruits sign contracts with lousy terms of agreement in Thailand, and they are given too rosy a conception of the level of income they can realistically make. It is justified to ask whether the berry industry had characteristics similar to human trafficking.

An employment contract would ensure workers’ rights

The dependent position of berry pickers without rights is apparent in the report published by the two ministries this spring. We are therefore troubled by the statement published by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy’s labour board in June, according to which the 50 Thai berry pickers who faced costs despite having worked were not contractually employed by the berry companies.

As the rapporteur behind the report published last spring, Markku Wallin, stated, the berry pickers need to be offered official employment contracts, which has been the case in Sweden. Although this would not eliminate all issues within the industry, it would finally entitle the berry pickers to basic workers’ rights. This would, in turn, enable intervention in case their rights are violated. The Ministry of Employment and Economy must urgently push the legislation forward.

The aim to bring Finland to the forefront of corporate social responsibility is stated clearly in the current Government Programme, and the exploitation of the vulnerable and dependent berry pickers hardly fits this objective. The past hot summer must be the last unruly berry summer.

Päivi Mattila
Secretary General
The Finnish League for Human Rights

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