Tougher rules to protect Sweden’s berry pickers

The Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket) has tightened regulations for hiring seasonal berry pickers ahead of the 2011 season.

Tougher rules to protect Sweden's berry pickers

The reason for the change is to improve working conditions and clarify the responsibilities of Swedish employers who seek the services of migrant labourers to help with the berry harvest.

“It is not acceptable that people come to Sweden for work and then become exploited. An individual´s right to reasonable conditions must prevail over any special interests,” Jonas Lindgren, Head of Division at The Swedish Migration Board said in a statement.

After several years of scandals involving guest workers imported to Sweden to pick berries in the north of the country the situation came to a head after a disastrous season in 2009, with many 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).

But unions warned that the minimum salary was insufficient, pointing out that it in some cases it was hardly enough to cover the plane tickets, housing and car rental.

In 2010, many berry pickers again found themselves in quite a jam after harvests proved disappointing and the season was characterised by protests and scandals.

In August, Vietnamese guest workers staged two demonstrations against their working conditions and there were reports of ravenous berry pickers shooting wild fowl for food.

In October the press reported that 135 berry pickers had been forced to return to Thailand empty handed after the owners of their employer allegedly emptied the firm of cash and fled.

“The most important thing is that we together with other involved authorities and organizations do what we can so that last year´s situation will not be repeated,” said Lindgren.

New guidelines for the employers will mean that berry pickers can only be hired by a foreign company that has an affiliate in Sweden.

It is this Swedish affiliate company which will be held responsible for following the work conditions in the contracts.

Further, the company has to be able to prove that they can pay the berry pickers’ salaries even if the harvest is poor.

They must also show that they have informed the pickers both of what kind of job they will be carrying out and of the work conditions involved.

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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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