The blueberry-picking season has come and gone, but a group of 156 Thai blueberry pickers still hasn’t been paid by their boss.
Angry and defiant, 26 of the workers won’t go home.
But it’s a long journey.
That’s because the pickers aren’t in Thailand, they’re in Sweden and the group refuses to return home without their money.
Rungrudee Phimbaep sips a bowl of noodles, watching a Thai music video. Outside the snow is deep and the sky is still dark, though it’s close to 9 am. It’s minus 18 degrees celcius.
She explains that Sweden isn’t what she expected this year.
“I came to Sweden expecting a good salary like the recruiters promised me. I’ve been here four times already. Last year I went back with about 3300 US dollars. This year I convinced six people to join me. But look at all of us here. We’ve gotten absolutely nothing.”
Rungrudee is a blueberry picker. In August she was part of a group of 156 Thai migrant workers that came to Sweden to pick blueberries for the Lomsjo berry company. But in September Lomsjö declared bankruptcy and the founder disappeared with half a million dollars of workers’ wages.
A month ago 130 in her group returned to Thailand with no money, but Rungrudee isn’t going anywhere without compensation. She and the 25 other Thai pickers refuse to go back to Thailand without getting paid in full.
Birds chirp in the snowy forest. The little village of Åsele, nestled in the snow covered hills of northern Sweden, is now the workers’ home.
They are staying in an old school house. All they can do is eat, sleep, and wait.
Tomas Hassel is the translator and coordinator for Lomsjö Berry. He hasn’t gotten paid either, and he’s angry. He has a Thai wife and he encouraged her family members to come work in Sweden.
“They worked so hard. Amazing people. They have debts back home. They’ve been putting up their land and homes to get money to come to Sweden. Now they go back home and get the paper in their hand that says they’re going to take the house. This is a tragedy. I feel sick when I think about it.”
Lomsjö stole salaries not only from Hassel and the Thais, but also from hundreds of Bangladeshi, Vietnamese and Chinese berry pickers. In another Swedish village, a group of cheated Vietnamese berry pickers were so outraged that they tied up employees of the recruitment company. The criminal charges were later dropped.
The growing abandoned worker phenomenon in Sweden is partly the result of a new law, pushed through by immigration authorities last year. The law guarantees seasonal workers a minimum monthly salary of two thousand five hundred dollars.
That may sound good. But recruiters and berry companies have used this law to lure Asian workers to Sweden, getting them to lay out their own money for the plane fare. No one is really sure if and when the government will pay out the salary guarantee to the cheated workers.
I went to meet with the highest government official in Åsele, district council head Bert-Rune Dahlberg, to ask him how the Lomsjö case is going.
“I completely understand why the Thai workers refuse to leave until they’re paid. We’re trying to speed up the bankruptcy case and see how much money we can get for the workers.”
But the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly in Sweden, and the Thai workers still haven’t seen any money from the government.
At the popular village meeting place, Eva’s Restaurant, I find a group of locals eating traditional soup, pancakes and berries. The village has come together to help the Thai workers. Gustaf Larsson, the village priest, says he’s received winter coats and money for the pickers.
“These people need support so the Swedish church here opened a bank account for those villagers who wanted to help the Thai workers. We haven’t gotten in as much money as we hoped. I think people are waiting for the government to sort this out. “
Bert-Rune Dahlberg of the district council says he’s pushing for a law like they have in Finland to help foreign workers, ensuring that they receive an advance payment before the berry picking begins.
For now though, he just shakes his head, looking out in the direction of the schoolhouse where the Thais wait patiently.
“The situation is untenable. To sit there with nothing to do, waiting every day for the answer “when will we get paid?”, it has to be really hard for them mentally. In reality this is slavery. These workers here and in the future must have salary security. Sweden, which is such a rich, and respected country shouldn’t be involved with in something where people are being tricked and cheated.”
With night falling, I meet up with four Thai women on their way back from shopping in Åsele. They’re so bundled up in their oversized winter clothes, gifts from the Asele villagers, that I can hardly see their faces. They race into the warmth of the schoolhouse.
In the kitchen I find Wutikorn Premjai chopping onions and preparing dinner for the group. The food was also donated by neighbors in Asele.
“I don’t know how can I say. How can I speak about that feeling from inside. When sweden people come here and give food and give some money, medicine, clothes. They know we just wait and wait.”
The smell of curry chicken wafts in the air as a young worker named Bunthai pops a Thai video into the video player. She sings along.
Wutikorn says he’s confident that in the end he and the other Thai workers will be compensated. And if new laws are enacted to protect him, he says he may even come back to Sweden.
“All the Swedish people ask us “if we get the money will we come back next year and pick berries or not?” All of us say sure. We’re very sure. We will come.”
Asia Calling has just learned that the Thais have decided to accept money from the Swedish government, a lot less than half than what they are owed – and they are heading home today.
Asia Calling will bring you their story from Thailand in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the founder of Lomsjo berry – and the half a million dollars of the workers’ wages – are still missing.