Record numbers of berry pickers are coming to Finland. The largest group is from north-east Thailand, which is the poorest region of the country. Annual incomes there are small, and a summer picking forest berries in Finland can be a big boost for living standards.
”It pays to go to Finland to collect berries,” says Yot Khaisanthia, a 37-year-old builder who makes around 100,000 baht (2,600 euros) per year in his home country.
He has been to Finland for the last two summers. Last year his wife Saisuni also travelled to the Nordic forests, and the couple’s children stayed with their grandparents. The pair is soon to leave again for a spell, foraging for fruits of the Finnish forests.
After expenses, the family had around 7,000 euros left on their return from their last trip. The money went towards the family’s living costs, the children’s school fees and the purchase of construction tools. Some of the money also went to pay off debts incurred for the journey, and some was shared with other relatives and Yot’s father.
Most pickers travelling to Finland from Thailand come from the poorer north-western Isan region. Agriculture is the main industry there, and people earn a living by farming rice and sugar cane.
Forest berry pickers do not have an employment relationship with Finnish businesses and Finnish employment regulations do not protect them. Pickers travel to Finland at their own risk.
The Finnish berry season is well-timed for rice and sugar cane farmers: the home harvest begins just as the pickers return from their three-month berry-picking sojourn. The hope is they will also bring a large amount of cash home with them.
“It’s always a risk to leave, as you never know what the crop will be like,” said Sunan and Mekkhala.
The couple was among the best of the Thai berry pickers last summer. They returned with around 12,000 euros between them, the result of long and productive days looking for berries over a two and a half month period.
A record number is due to arrive from Thailand this year: some 3,200. Last year the average net take for a picker was 3,000 euros.
”The berry industry has developed in a favorable direction,” says Antti Niemelä, who works on berry pickers’ visas at the Finnish embassy in Bangkok.
This year some 17 Finnish firms are recruiting berry pickers from Thailand. Three new companies have arrived in the last year. A couple of firms have a lower number of pickers than last year because the company has not provided a proper final report on how the picking season had gone.
The embassy has warned some of the firms that pickers were not given sufficiently accurate information on the possibilities of actually finding the berries or on working conditions, such as accommodation and rules on the roads and in the forests.
”We look into pickers real expenses and pay information through spot checks performed by phone after the season is over,” says Niemelä. “The sector is important to Finland, and employs many Finns and produces exports. For example berry products are popular in Asia and they can also raise Finland’s profile in the region. If Finns don’t go to the forests, pickers are required from somewhere.”