The number of Thai berry pickers arriving in Finland this week is expected to be higher than ever before. Thai authorities have allowed more than 4,000 berry pickers to work in Finland in 2022, 500 more than in previous years.
On the Finnish side, the North Ostrobothnia TE employment office coordinates the arrival of the berry pickers. Service manager Mari Tuomikoski said it is not yet possible to confirm whether the quota allowed by the Thai authorities will be filled.
Among the large berry firms, Polarica Berries and Fruits will bring 1100 berry pickers to Finland, and Marja Bothnia Berries will welcome 900 migrant workers.
Blueberries and cloudberries should have a good harvest this year, Polarica CEO Jukka Kristo stated. According to Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), the pollination of blueberries was excellent and the berries are plentiful throughout the country this year.
"Overall, the season is looking good at the moment, but we don't know yet how the war in Ukraine and inflation will affect the berry sector," Kristo told Yle.
Arrival of berry pickers carefully planned
Tuomikoski from the TE employment office said that several authorities, ministries and Thai authorities are involved in planning for the berry pickers' arrival.
"Before the picking season starts, kick-off events will be held for these companies in cooperation with the Ministry of Employment and the Economy as well as officials from Thailand and the embassy," Tuomikoski said.
Thai pickers are important for Finland's berry sector. Two years ago, it was feared the entire berry harvest would be lost when Thai authorities restricted pickers’ entry to Finland due to the Covid pandemic.
Berries are also valuable to pickers in terms of profits. Last year, the net wage for a couple of months' berry picking reached a maximum of 12,000 euros.
The second summer of the "berry law"
For the second berry picking season, the "berry law" aims to prevent conflicts between pickers and the companies in the sector. The law on the legal status of foreigners who collect natural products came into force in June last year.
The law does not directly refer to rights of berry pickers, but rather those of wild produce pickers, because it covers, among other things, mushroom pickers. The law defines the rights of the gatherer and the obligations of companies purchasing the natural products.
In the past, the legal relationship between berry pickers and companies was unregulated, said Niko Huru, a labour inspector for the Northern Finland Regional State Administrative Agency. In the past, human trafficking and squalid conditions for pickers have been issues for the industry.
"[Before the law] anyone could sell berries to anyone and get some kind of compensation. If there was a dispute, it was purely a civil dispute," Huru said.
However, berry picking was not entirely unregulated. Prior to the law, there was a system of letters of intent.
"The companies were bound by the agreement to roughly the same obligations as are now imposed by law," said Huru.
Kristo from Polarica said the new law is welcome and the conditions it imposes are not overwhelming to employers.
"These are all things we have been familiar with for a long time. I don't think that the law will require larger operators to do the impossible. The good thing is that it will standardise the requirements so they are the same for everyone," Kristo told Yle.
Kristo noted that reputation is vitally important for employers.
"I have now been welcoming them [berry pickers] to Finland. About 80 percent have been with us before, and 20 percent are their relatives. There must be a reason why they come to us year after year to pick," Kristo said.