What kind of industry invests in dependence on “self-employed tourists” from Thailand? asks a researcher who spent two weeks with the berry pickers in Northern Finland.
They fly half-way round the world from Thailand to Finland to pick berries and hope they can return with at least 1000 Euros to make the journey worthwhile. The lucky ones sometimes return with 1100 Euros, but the unfortunate ones end up with nothing at the bottom of the basket and instead incur debts.
A preliminary research by the tireless Thai labour campaigner Junya “Lek” Yimprasert who spent a two-week study tour with berry pickers in the forests, describes people who are working under conditions akin to forced labour and yet have no labour protection whatsoever from the Finnish government.
Since 2003 hundreds of Thai berry pickers have headed for the forests and swamps in the northern part of Finland to pick berries. There hidden from public view they work 14-20 hours a day continuously for three months without holiday breaks.
“During the peak of the berry season some workers leave the camps at one o’clock in the morning and return at 11:00 in the evening”, said Yimprasert.
They are here for a very short season of 65-90 days and so every single working day counts. There are many who often become feverish but would rather take medication and shiver it out in the forests than stay back.
Many of the camps in which the berry pickers live and work are described as “untidy, surrounded by litter with levels of general hygiene well below standard”.
“Toilets and water systems were often in disrepair, or out-of-function altogether, with in some cases, pickers going without water for bathing for days and even weeks” says Yimprasert.
The camps they live in such as old school buildings are purchased by some berry processing companies to house the pickers and for which they pay 16-17 euros a day.
Nobody admits responsibility for the pickers
The berry pickers are in a legal black hole. Categorised as entrepreneurs they are entirely responsible for themselves and even Finnish trade unions admit their status in Finnish legislation as entrepreneurs makes it nearly impossible for an intervention. At best they can raise awareness and put subtle pressure on the berry companies to take a more responsible position.
The companies disclaim any responsibility towards the pickers, do not even directly negotiate the prices with them and claim they are self-employed people who are allowed to sell their products to whoever they wish. Except that in reality they cannot.
The Finnish berry processing companies are increasing investments in machinery and storage capacity and, openly admit they are dependent on Thai berry pickers without whom they have to either close down their facilities or bring in imported berries.
“But what kind of industry invests in dependence on self-employed tourists from Thailand?” asks Yimprasert.