The image of migrant workers freezing, locking up their bosses and marching for better pay and conditions is not typically Swedish.
Yet these are among the catalog of incidents that have occurred among Asian workers spending the season picking wild berries in the forests of central and northern Sweden.
They are occurring, union officials and aid workers say, mainly because collective bargaining rules, implemented recently, are proving difficult to enforce, and because of what appears to be exploitation by employment agencies based in Asia. The government is monitoring the situation and says it may adapt its rules.
In some cases, humanitarian agencies, local authorities and churches have stepped in to help stranded and precarious workers.
Ylva de Val-Olsson, a Red Cross coordinator, said her organization intervened after discovering in late August that 138 Bangladeshi pickers were crammed into four squalid houses in Bracke, in central Sweden. The accommodation lacked functioning toilets and the workers had inadequate clothing, shoes and blankets for night temperatures, just above freezing.
“We’re used to helping people abroad,” she said. “But it’s very seldom that we have an acute situation like this in Sweden.”
Some of the Bangladeshis have gone home, but many remain and want to stay and pick berries, to cover their debts. “They thought they would get a lifetime’s income, but it’s the opposite,” she said. “It’s sad.”
Other incidents reported by the Swedish media last month include strikes and sit-ins by Vietnamese and Chinese pickers protesting conditions. In one case, Vietnamese pickers locked up and reportedly assaulted their team leaders in a school, while 100 Chinese workers staged an overnight march to protest salaries and conditions, walking 15 kilometers, or 9 miles. Vietnamese berry pickers in Saran, in central Sweden, were reportedly shooting birds with catapults for food.
Considered a delicacy by Swedes, berries are eaten fresh or preserved on breakfast cereal and used to make jam, cakes, juice and infusions.
Laws giving the public a right of access allow people to roam forests gathering wild berries with few limits. But the practice has evolved from bucolic pastime into big business.
Wild berries are especially rich in vitamins and prized by food retailers, and by pharmaceutical companies for their antioxidant qualities. Their pigments can be used for coloring cosmetics, pharmaceutical syrups and nutritional supplements.
In Sweden and Finland, over 30,000 tons are gathered each season, according to Polarica, the largest producer there. The most important are cloudberries, gathered in late July; blueberries, in August; and lingonberries, in September. Large quantities are also gathered in Poland, the Baltic States, Russia and Belarus.
And much like fruit picking in France and Spain, low wages and tough conditions dissuade locals — in this case crouching and tramping through damp, mosquito-infested forests.
In Sweden, the labor has primarily come from East Asian countries. In Finland, migrant Ukrainians have found themselves in a similarly precarious situation in recent years.
Officially, there are about 4,000 Asian workers in Sweden with permits this year. But the real number is higher, because many enter on tourist visas. Last year, official numbers were several thousand higher, though a poor harvest may have deterred some.
After pressure from unions, pressure groups and public unease, the government has acted. In March, the Migration Board said that it would start handling permit applications for pickers in the same way as for other work permit applications for people who are not citizens in the European Union. Previously, pickers had entered on tourist visas, working casually.
The head of the board’s work permit unit, Alejandro Firpo, said his agency issued permits of varying duration but had a very limited authority to follow up on abuses, which is a matter for unions, employers and workers.