Thai berry pickers head home empty-handed

Around 135 Thai berry pickers left Åsele in Sweden's north on Saturday evening to return to Thailand empty handed after the owners of their employer, Lömjsö Bär, allegedly emptied the firm of cash and fled.

The majority of the 160 Thai people who have spent the past two months working for the firm have decided to give up their fight to be paid for their work, having received only 6,000 kronor ($894).

“38 Thais have chosen to stay to try to get their salaries,” said Dan Andersson at Umeå police on Saturday evening.

When back in Thailand the berry pickers face an uncertain future, with many having borrowed substantial sums to travel to Sweden for the season.

“They are in dire straits. The embassy is seeing to it that they get home but they have been fooled out of everything they own,” said interpreter Tomas Hasser to local newspaper Västerbottens Kuriren.

The atmosphere among the berry pickers became heated at times with police in attendance.

Most of the berry pickers will fly out to Thailand on Sunday, while the remaining few are booked on flights on October 11th.

The CEO of Lömsjö Bär AB, Ari Hallikanen, is meanwhile suspected of financial crimes after having allegedly emptied the firm of its cash and fled Sweden. No official criminal investigation has however yet been opened against him or chairperson Olle Andersson regarding Åsele.

Hallikanen has a series of bankruptcies behind him, and in 2007 faced charges of assault involving berry pickers in Hälsingland.

Lömsjö Bär was the firm which was involved in a highly publicised fight in Särna in the summer involving Vietnamese berry pickers. The argument led to the arrest of several berry pickers after they locked in their supervisors.

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Trafficking fears sour berry picking season

Observers in Sweden have warned that Bulgarians and Ukrainians who are trying to eke out a living by picking berries in the Swedish forests may have fallen afoul of human trafficking.

Trafficking fears sour berry picking season

“Many of the Bulgarian berry pickers are being exploited, and we also have suspected cases where they might have been trafficked by their countrymen,” said Mats Wingborg of the corporate social responsibility watchdog Swedwatch.

“The situation is equally bad for (non-EU) Ukrainians who are here without the right permissions but are picking berries in the south of Norrland.”

IN PICTURES: Scenes from the Swedish forest during berry picking season

Sweden’s Labour Minister Hillevi Engström warned recently that Sweden could be grappling with more labour trafficking than previously suspected.

“We shouldn’t be naive and think this doesn’t happen in Sweden,” she said. “We’ve done a good job in combating trafficking but we haven’t really been a destination for labour exploitation, so we don’t know how big the problem is,” Engström told The Local.

She added that foreign workers’ need for an income and fear of deportation meant they were unlikely to contact authorities themselves.

“When people are struggling to stay afloat, and are happy to be working at all, it might not be very interesting to get in touch with the police or the unions,” she said.

The situation for foreign nationals picking blueberries, lingon berries, and cloud berries in the Swedish wilderness has received international attention, with several state agencies making an effort to shore up proper working conditions to avoid Sweden’s forests being dubbed “Scandinavian sweatshops”.

Swedwatch’s Wingborg recently returned from the forests of central and northern Sweden. The organization will publish its new report in September, but chose to publish a few reflections and pictures from the trip.

“About a hundred Bulgarian berry pickers set up camp in July near Mehedeby in Uppland County. The tough conditions stand in contrast to the Thai workers’ orderly canteens and sleeping quarters at facilities in Västerbotten County,” Wingborg wrote, adding that the Thai workers he met had drawn up maps with place names in Thai over the northern forests.

“A Thai rice farmer has more knowledge of where to get berries in northern Sweden than the local residents do,” Wingborg noted.

The number of non-EU berry pickers reached an all-time high this year. There are 6,000 Thai nationals employed by Thai staffing companies which are in turn on contract with Swedish buyers. The workers are guaranteed a minimum monthly salary of 19,300 kronor ($2,970), which follows the guidelines in trade union Kommunal’s collective bargaining agreement. The workers are entitled to work over-time if they choose.

Swedwatch said a Thai worker could be picking up to 100 kilogrammes of berries a day, while the Bulgarians further south were averaging about 30 kilogrammes. The chain of middle-men means that not all berry pickers take home a lot of cash.

“Unfortunately, many are tricked by the middlemen,” Ovanåker municipal head Yoomi Renström told the TT news agency, adding that the foreign workers’ presence has at times created friction with the locals.

“Their big encampments mean that land owners become irritated at the litter and destruction that sometimes takes place,” she said. “They’d mostly like to evict them.”

Despite progress in the Thai workers’ situation, Swedwatch warned there were still dishonest contractors kicking about.

“Common problems are sleeping facilities that house too many people (…) or unscrupulous Thai staffing firms that take out unwarranted fees or reference incorrect exchange rates to fool the berry pickers,” the organization noted.

TT/The Local/at

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