Despite working hard in the berry orchards of Sweden, Chaiyaphum resident Khamnoon Narkkham and his wife returned to Thailand in October with only Bt200 in their pockets and almost Bt160,000 in debt, writes The Nation.
Encouraged by the success of fellow Thais who netted tens of thousands of baht from berry picking, the couple borrowed the money for the trip. But after being there for two months, with only poor food and accommodation provided, they wondered if their predecessors’ experiences had been the same. Upon their return, they realised they had been extremely unfortunate. The job-recruitment agency in Sweden folded, and although they were entitled to bankruptcy-insurance compensation, it was barely enough to cover the interest from the loans.
“Making matters worse, our rice and sugar cane fields were heavily flooded. We borrowed Bt100,000 for the chemicals for the sugar cane plantation, and we have nothing to settle the debt. We could harvest only 30 per cent of our rice, and it is barely enough for eating until the next harvest season,” says the 33-year-old Khamnoon.
According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the couple is among 156 workers who failed to make a single satang for their two months of labour. While they returned home, some 39 workers stayed on in Sweden to sue the employer. Upon receiving the insurance compensation of 16,720 krona (Bt73,800), all but two returned home last month. Because the payment is subject to 25 per cent income tax, they will receive considerably less.
Like many low-income earners, Khamnoon and his wife turned to a loan shark to finance their trip. They borrowed Bt80,000 each, subject to an interest rate of three per cent, about Bt4,800 a month.
Having heard the success stories of those who had gone before, Khamnoon figured he could easily make enough money to pay off his loans and come out ahead.
In April, the recruiter known only as Phoomkhacha came with a Swede to Chaiyaphum to attract Thai labourers to work for Lom Berry, aka Lomsjo Bar AB.
The loans were to cover fees demanded by Phoomkhacha.
They departed on July 29 and stayed at the home of employer Ari Hallikanen, moving to the farm two days later before beginning work on August 7.
Over the next two months, the Thais braved forbidding working conditions: daily travel of 300 to 400 kilometres and carrying a payload of 30 to 40kg.
“We finished work after 9pm and slept for only five hours and we carried the extra weight on top of a daily minimum of 24kg in the hope of extra pay, which we never received,” says Khamnoon.
He adds that the company paid each worker only once, on August 25. They got 6,000 krona, which was described as an allowance and not the full amount of 16,372 krona – the salary promised in the contract – and nothing of the promised bonus of 23 krona per kg.
The company, he said, said this would allow the workers to avoid paying taxes.
When it came time for the next pay day, the company said payment would be delayed by three days. “But then they suddenly disappeared the next day, on September 26, with our salary, and never showed up,” Khamnoon says.
The workers filed a complaint with Swedish police, who contacted the Thai Embassy and the company to reach a settlement. Khamnoon says a son of the company owner said all the money was with his father, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
They were told that daily expenses of 190 krona covering food, accommodation, fuel and car rent would be deducted from their salary, in addition to the tools they needed for work, worth 150 krona.
The workers had to carry with them personal utensils, including chopping board, kitchen knives, and slingshots, which proved useful for shooting down wild birds when they ran out of food.
Each of the 156 workers paid a minimum of Bt80,000 in commissions and fees to secure their jobs. The recruiter Phoomkhacha had pledged a minimum income of around Bt140,000.
Overseas labour, especially fruit collection, has been popular among Chaiyaphum residents for around 10 years, after a local woman married to a Swede introduced this work to her neighbours.
In the beginning, possibly through jobs with honest employers, most local residents returned to Thailand with fat wallets.
Supphana Khumdee, of the provincial employment office, recalls how returning workers bought pickup trucks as soon they arrived back from Sweden, which popularised the practice of overseas fruit picking.
Supphana worked with the local Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to initially shoulder their debts and later collected the repayments at low interest rates. The Labour Ministry later sought help through the Foreign Affairs Ministry to demand payments the company owed to these workers.
Fruit picking is also popular among Chinese and Vietnamese workers. With a Swedish government quota is place, competition is fierce, and desperate Thais leap at the chance whenever it is offered to them.
The Swedish government has since issued strict regulations and now demands work permits for foreign workers – a tourist visa will no longer suffice. There are now four companies registered with the Thai Labour Ministry to land fruit-collection contracts in Sweden and Finland.
Duanngarm Buachom, 42, and her husband from Khon Kaen, were elated by the Swedish court’s order for compensation payments. They borrowed Bt160,000 from a loan shark and they are burdened with a four-per-cent monthly interest rate.
“The faster we receive the payment, the better. The money will settle some debts. We’re still scratching our heads on how to cover the rest,” she says.
Like Khamnoon, Duanngarm has vowed never to take on this job and return to Sweden again.