Berry picker plight examined by rights group

After several years of scandals involving guest workers imported to Sweden to pick berries in the north of the country, the Swedish human rights and corporate social responsibility watchdog Swedwatch has opened an investigation.

Berry picker plight examined by rights group

“We want to establish which companies are involved and the extent to their responsibility, review the regulations and legislation and try to perform an analysis of what it is that goes wrong, year after year,” Viveka Risberg at Swedwatch said.

Swedwatch is a non profit organisation reporting on Swedish business relations, performing research for sustainable business and monitoring corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The group normally monitors Swedish firms at work in low-wage countries and its operation are regularly funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

This is the first time the group has opened an inspection in Sweden and thus funding has been sought from other sources.

“We are chasing both unions and the municipalities and others. The Migration Board has said no, the enterprise ministry has not replied, so we are hopeful that other actors can contribute.”

“The Peace & Love Foundation has contributed 20,000 kronor ($3,150), the Building Workers’ Union has also said yes but has not yet come up with a figure.”

Despite the broad search for funding from various groups with an apparent interest in the issue, Risberg underlined that the group was keen to ensure that political agendas do not dictate the outcome.

“The most important thing when we complete the report is for it to be completely independent, because there are many political agendas at play here,” she said

Swedwatch aims to produce a report which can be used as a framework for discussions and decisions for municipalities and Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag.

The group intend to have a first short version ready by June and produce a completed report in August. The completed report will be translated into Thai and Vietnamese and be available for download from their homepage.

Thousands of seasonal workers from Asia, most of them from Thailand, come to Sweden each summer mainly to pick wild berries in the north under sometimes difficult working conditions.

After a disastrous season in 2009 the situation came to a head with many of the foreign berry pickers heading home weighed down by debt instead of profits. In 2010 the pickers were for the first time provided with contracts guaranteeing them a monthly wage of at least 16,372 kronor ($2,321).

Some Swedish unions however warned that the minimum salary was insufficient, pointing out that it in some cases is hardly enough to cover the money the workers have to shell out for things like plane tickets, housing and car rental.

Despite the minimum wage requirement, the 2010 berry season was characterised by protests and scandals.

In August around 120 seasonal berry pickers from Vietnam staged two demonstrations against their working conditions. In one of the demonstrations, some 70 berry pickers locked six of their team leaders in a room at the former school where they were living, a move which led to police detention.

Furthermore there were reports of hungry berry pickers shooting birds for food. In October it emerged that 135 Thai berry pickers had left Åsele in northern Sweden to return to Thailand empty handed after the owners of their employer, Lömjsö Berry, allegedly emptied the firm of cash and fled.

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Swedish politician jailed for fraud

Former Moderate Party politician Annétthe Zettergren, 58, was jailed for 3.5 years on Thursday and ordered to pay damages totalling 3.9 million ($605,000) to the county of Värmland and a further 350,000 kronor to her former partner.

Swedish politician jailed for fraud

Zettergren was charged with two counts of serious fraud in July following her arrest in Thailand in March.

The first charge related to a period spent serving on the Värmland County Council. Zettergren also ran a physical therapy clinic that investigators believe she used to send fraudulent invoices to the county council to the tune of 4.5 million kronor.

RELATED STORIES: Read all about the Annétthe Zettergren fraud case

The second charge related to the theft of funds from her partner’s bank account before she disappeared, fleeing to Thailand in September 2012.

The scandal emerged after a report in the local Nya Wermlands-Tidningen that revealed that Zettergren was the highest paid physical therapist in the county.

The report led to a county council investigation and in June 2012 Zettergren left all of her positions of responsibility within the county. During her long service she has served on the Värmland County Council, the board of a regional development body and the local police board.

The county council reported the matter to the police on August 22nd and Zettergren disappeared a month later. A warrant for her arrest was issued shortly after.

After almost six months on the run, Swedish police were able to track her down and Thai police were able to catch up with her and make an arrest in the resort of Pattaya in March 2013. After a week in a Thai prison, Zettergren was deported back to Sweden.

Zettergren’s nephew, also detained in Thailand in March, was convicted on Thursday on charges of handling stolen money and sentenced to probation and community service.

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