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Thailand cuts number of berry pickers to Finland - after last year's human trafficking scandal

This year Thai officials have decided to issue only 2,500 exit visas to workers headed to pick berries in Finland, last year that figure was 3,500.

The berry pickers' base camp in Central Finland in summer 2017. Image: Sisä-Suomen poliisi
Yle News

Following the human trafficking conviction of a Finnish berry picking firm's boss earlier this year, officials in Thailand have significantly cut the number of exit visas issued to Thais headed to Finland towork as berry pickers.

The Thai decision is a direct reaction to the industry's human trafficking scandal last summer. Finnish berry companies are now reportedly looking beyond Thailand to enlist an adequate number of labourers to pick this summer's crops.

In January, a court in central Finland's city of Jyväskylä handed down a 20-month suspended prison sentence to a berry firm owner convicted of trafficking 26 people from Thailand to pick berries in Finnish forests in the summer of 2017.

In addition to the human trafficking conviction, the owner of berry firm Marja-Matti was also found guilty of fraud and violations of waste management laws.

Government advisor at Finland's employment ministry, Olli Sorainen said the ministry has tried to negotiate with Thai government representatives to allow more workers to come but "they won't budge," Sorainen said.

Berry picker fled from work camp for help

Two Thai journalists working for Svenska Yle spoke with one of the trafficking trial's 26 berry-picking plaintiffs, Ying Phakjira, a young woman from a poverty-stricken family in northern Thailand.

Phakjira said the working and living conditions at the berry picking camp last summer were inhumane and miserable.

"We had to sleep in buses and [shipping] containers. They said we could earn more than 10,000 euros in three months. But first we had to pay our debts to the company," she said.

Eventually, Phakjira said she fled to a refugee reception centre in eastern Finland's municipality of Joutseno where she found help to return home to Thailand.

Story continues after photo.

The berry pickers slept in modified old buses and trailers. Image: Sisä-Suomen poliisi

Industry remains self-regulated

The rights of berry pickers are unofficially regulated by a mutual letter of intent - a non-binding agreement - signed by various Finnish berry companies.

Sorainen said the agreement is not backed by law, but berry firms have been consistently updating and improving the guidelines.

"The situation has improved since the human trafficking [incident]," Sorainen told Svenska Yle.

High-interest travel loans no longer allowed

Among the changes made to the non-binding agreement include a rule that berry companies may no longer charge interest on loans they hand out for berry pickers' air travel to Finland.

Some berry companies are known to have charged extremely high interest rates on the airfare loans.

Another update to the agreement includes provisions which state that berry pickers must be paid in full for their work before departing home. However, Sorainen said, compliance of the rules remains entirely up to the companies.

"There is no legal basis to make the [industry's] letter of intent legally binding - it would require a law change," Sorainen said.

Thailand: Finland should follow Sweden

However, Sweden now requires legally-binding employment contracts to be issued to all migrant agricultural workers there and Thailand officials say they hope Finland will follow suit.

Anuruk Tosarat from Thailand's employment ministry told Yle that Thailand would use all available legal means to combat the practice of recruiters making false promises of big earnings in Finnish forests, when they instead lure workers into taking on huge debts.

It is estimated the Finnish berry industry requires some 4,000 to 6,000 berry pickers this season.

This year Finnish migrant worker scouts have been looking beyond Thailand, and into neighbouring countries in the region, to fill those jobs.

This time of year there are an increased number of labourers in Southeast Asia looking for work; the region's rice harvesting season ends just as the Nordic berry season gets started.

This report was taken from a Svenska Yle article (in Swedish), with contributing reporters Stefan Brunow, Siwaporn Kingston and Papitchaya Boonngok.

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