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Berry picking: Ukrainians in the strawberry fields make double the wages of Thais in the forest

Finland's berry picking industry offers different pay to different workers, with the mainly Thai migrant workers picking forest berries generally getting the smallest pay packets.

Mustikkaa torilla.
The berries in your local market were likely picked by very low-paid migrant workers. Image: Krista Holappa / Yle

Summer means berries in Finland, with a plentiful harvest of sweet strawberries, bilberries and cloudberries available in street workers.

The workers responsible for gathering the harvest, however, receive wildly different wages: the hourly wage of a strawberry picker is around double that of a forest-based bilberry picker.

Finnish businesses first imported Thai workers to gather berries in 2005. Since then bilberries, cloudberries and lingonberries have been picked by migrant workers legally defined as sole traders rather than employees.

That means they pay all their own costs, and their pay depends on how good the harvest is—and how much work they're able to do. Finland's 'Everyman's right' gives broad rights to pick berries in forests, even when privately owned.

Losses possible

That means Thai pickers can come to Finland for 2-3 months in the summer, pick berries in the forest, sell them on and hopefully make a profit. After their expenses—roughly 1,000 euros in most cases—Yle calculated based on data from several sources that their hourly pay works out at around 5-7 euros an hour depending on their harvest.

The calculation includes travelling time to new picking areas, time in the forests, maintenance of their equipment and planning time.

That compares, for example, to a wage of around 10 euros per hour for a cleaner in Finland.

In 2014 Markku Wallin produced a report for the Ministry of Labour in which he estimated that berry pickers work 15 hour days, including breaks. Berry firms claim that working time is—at least now—much shorter, at around 12 hours per day including breaks.

Hourly pay

Wallin also recommended that forest-based berry pickers be covered by Finland's extensive system of sector-by-sector collective agreements, giving them a guaranteed wage rather than a per-kilo income. That would eliminate the wide variance in incomes within the industry, but the proposal has not been implemented.

The most successful Thai pickers can earn around 5,000 euros over the 70 days they are in Finland picking berries—a significant sum for rural Thais. The unlucky ones can make a loss. Last year at least one left Finland showing a 200 euro deficit on his trip—again, a significant sum in a country where the average wage is 350 euros per month.

Those losses have had consequences, as the Thai government warned pickers against travelling to Finland because of the possibility of poor pay.

"Pickers have refused to come to Finland," confirmed Vernu Vasunta of berry firm Kiantama.

On strawberry farms, the situation is completely different. Farmers employ pickers mainly from Ukraine and Russia, and give them contracts and an hourly wage.

"Not sustainable"

The base pay is 8.29 euros per hour, but different supplements can increase that to around 11 euros per hour. The terms and conditions are governed by a collective agreement, working time is 40 hours per week, and any overtime should be paid.

Wallin's recommendation that berry firms be forced to sign collective agreements has not gone anywhere since 2014, largely because those companies "don't want to employ pickers", according to Interior ministry official Harri Sivula.

"It's not really sustainable," said Sivula.

The pickers' status as entrepreneurs saves the berry firms a lot of money. The cost of social insurance and pension payments would make many firms unviable, according to Arctic International's CEO Janne Naapanki.

No political will

"At least this firm would shut down," said Naapanki.

Naapanki also expressed the worry that pickers might get lazy, spending time in the forests relaxing rather than picking berries, if they were guaranteed an hourly wage. That is, however, a risk in any workplace.

In Sweden companies have been forced to stop paying by the kilo, although they now prefer to hire pickers through agencies rather than directly. There is however no plan to follow suit in Finland, according to Economy and Employment ministry official Olli Sorainen.

"There is no consensus within the government," said Sorainen.

Sivula agrees, noting the lack of political will to improve the lot of forest-based pickers.

"Thais come here voluntarily," said Sivula. "There's no political pressure to resolve the issue. This is not a big problem in society."

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