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Trafficking fears sour berry picking season

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Trafficking fears sour berry picking season
14:28 CEST+02:00
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.

"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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