Trouble is brewing in the forests of Sweden as foreign migrant workers complain about exploitation and poor harvests.
For Swedes, a bowl of their fresh native berries – lingonberries, blueberries and cloudberries, known as “forest gold” – smothered in cream, atop a crisp waffle or warm pancake is a delicious treat.
At this time of year mouths start to drool in anticipation of the harvest, bursting with juice and sweetness. But a sour taste has leached into this year’s crop as foreign migrant berry-pickers mutiny in the forests and plains of northern and central Sweden over low pay, bad conditions and the scarcity of berries.
That progressive Sweden, known as “a workers’ paradise” with high levels of employee protection, tolerates the annual entry of thousands of frequently exploited south Asian guest workers to harvest their wild berries has sparked much debate.
Questions are being asked in parliament about the foreign berry-pickers’ plight. The biggest trade union group blames the government, claiming that changes to immigration law took away their veto over the use of non-European guest workers.
The news that hungry and penniless pickers have had to resort to shooting small birds with catapults and arrows, and picking potentially poisonous forest mushrooms to survive, has shocked many Swedes. There were police warnings that tensions among guest workers risked spiralling out of control, tensions that did result in sit-downs, marches and assaults at one location on Vietnamese supervisors.
The protests have been gathering momentum, with some workers pleading to go home.
One group set up banners that read “SOS Vietnam”. Elsewhere, 120 Chinese guest workers went on a 15km overnight march saying they were penniless and hungry. Weeks after their arrival in remote districts, after repeated forays into the woods and marshes, the search for elusive berries had proven too much for some. The guest workers told how they had been promised they would work in plantations bursting with berries, and make a lot of money. They had paid substantial sums, more than $1,600 in travel costs, visas, accommodation, food and transport to the berry-growing areas.
Recruitment agencies in their own countries provide the picking services to Swedish companies that buy the berries. Last year hundreds of Thai berry-pickers, some of whom staked their life savings to travel to Sweden, found themselves stranded and without money. The harvest was disastrous – they were paid on the amount of berries picked – and could only get home thanks to donations and assistance from the Thai and Swedish authorities.
Even under ideal picking conditions, the pickers would have had to pick enormous quantities of berries every day in order to come close to earning the promised income, it was reported.
Over the years Sweden has issued warnings via its embassies abroad about cases of fraud, scams and harassment by unscrupulous and bogus recruitment agencies. Yet the south Asian guest workers, duped into believing they will make a fortune, keep coming in ever greater numbers.
New regulations, in advance of this season, meant that visas were issued on the basis that the migrant workers would receive a minimum wage.
Some protesters say they were cheated by those who recruited them at home and had to sign a second contract waiving their right to a minimum wage. Instead they would be paid for the weight of berries picked.
Although the workers have the right to a minimum wage, foreign employment agencies who hire them are allowed to deduct travel, lodging and food costs from their wages, a practice that often leaves them in serious debt.
“They have been tempted here on false promises, the unions’ influence has been entirely done away with,” claims Swedish trade union leader Wanja Lundby- Wedin, who called on the government to take responsibility.
The companies that buy the wild berries, sold at markets to shops and to jam, yoghurt and juice producers, are dependent on migrant workers because they cannot recruit at home. Numerous blogs in Stockholm’s The Local online newspaper report that Swedes, such as students and the unemployed, do not want the work because it is so arduous, the locations are remote and often mosquito-ridden, terrain is difficult to penetrate and good berry harvests are unpredictable due to climate change.
Foraging for blueberries and lingonberries in the forests, along the hedgerows and undergrowth has been a favourite pastime for generations here. At weekends, come late summer and early autumn, people roam the countryside and forests gathering buckets of wild berries.
But it is all a far cry from the reality of commercial berry-picking and the fate of foreign berry-pickers who return home weighed down by debt instead of profits.
Now there are calls for Swedes to boycott their beloved berries – those gathered for commercial purposes and frozen and conserved – in a show of support for exploited guest pickers. But that may be a sacrifice too hard for many Swedes to swallow.