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Thai berry pickers speak of seized passports and outsize debt in human trafficking case

A Central Finland entrepreneur is in court on charges of human trafficking over his treatment of berry pickers from Thailand.

Marjan-poimintayrityksen piha-alue.
An aerial view of the entrepreneur's property showing accommodation for the workers. Image: Poliisi

The Central Finland District Court began hearing the case of a Finnish entrepreneur charged with human trafficking in a sitting that lasted nearly 30 days.

According to the charge sheet, in the summer of 2016, the man brought berry pickers from Thailand to Finland, only for them to find themselves in a situation resembling forced labour and working in conditions that prosecutors considered an affront to human dignity.

The prosecution has called on the court to sentence the man to more than three years in prison and to disqualify him from running a business over the charges of human trafficking and aggravated extortion.

The prosecution also wants the defendant to pay more than 60,000 euros in damages.

However the court found that not all of the berry pickers working for the man were dissatisfied with their working conditions. The case involves 26 plaintiffs – the man had employed more than 200 labourers.

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

According to the prosecutor, some of the plaintiffs were first timers who came to Finland to do berry picking. However they felt that they were had been lured into a trap with vague promises about the working conditions they would find and eventually exploited.

The labourers had borrowed money make the trip to Finland, with the intention of using the income earned from berry picking to paying off their debts. The workers generally borrowed enough to cover half of the cost of the trip, some 35,000 baht, or just short of 1,000 euros.

The accused has denied all of the charges brought against him.

Inadequate accommodation, passports confiscated

Another striking feature of the human trafficking case is the fact during the autumn, the plaintiffs were flown from Thailand to the court in Jyväskylä to testify in the case.

The court’s chief judge, Tapani Koppinen said that roughly 30 witnesses or plaintiffs showed up in court to give evidence.

The plaintiffs described the conditions in which they lived during their time in Finland and also mentioned alleged irregularities relating to their income and how it was used to pay down their debt.

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Marjanpoimijoiden keittokatos.
Makeshift kitchens at the workers' camp. Image: Sisä-Suomen poliisi

The defendant reportedly accommodated the berry pickers on his business premises in modified trailers and shipping containers. Similar structures were also used for cooking and bathroom facilities. The entrepreneur also retained possession of the workers’ passports.

The berry pickers confirmed that the entrepreneur did not in any way restrict their movements, as he testified in court. However according to the plaintiffs, the fact that their boss had their passports and that their income was used to reduce their debts meant that there was in practice no way to escape his influence.

The entrepreneur’s defence lawyer rejected the charges, saying that his actions conformed to established practice in the industry. The defendant also said that the living conditions provided for the workers were adequate.

Both sides had wildly divergent views on the practice of using the labourer’s wages to pay off their debts. The defence said that the entrepreneur had had nothing to do with any debts incurred in Thailand.

Professor: Case a legal precedent

According to Turku University Labour Law Professor Seppo Koskinen, the case involving the berry pickers and their employers can be considered precedent-setting.

"The factual accounts used in the case are very close to the provisions in human trafficking legislation," Koskinen said, adding that there are examples of even more egregious actions.

The professor said that the court will have to determine the minimum features of human trafficking.

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Marjanpoimijoiden käymälät.
Shipping containers were converted to provide toilet facilities. Image: Sisä-Suomen poliisi

As a rule, cases that deal with human trafficking in Finland have involved prostitution and the abuse of workers forced to work in deplorable circumstances.

He noted that cases involving sex workers usually offer explicit evidence that the victims have been used as pawns in a criminal enterprise.

He noted that defining the minimum criteria for human trafficking is not without its problems.

"Human trafficking has been seen as a very unusual offence. If the minimum criteria are constantly falling, the original intent of the legislation will no longer be satisfied," he commented.

Nowadays the court can fall back on the charge of extortion for cases which are deemed to demonstrate less severe offences.

Game rules not working

Finnish authorities have long discussed the position of berry pickers coming from abroad to work in Finland. Current practice is for the workers to use seasonal work visas.

In principle Thai berry pickers working in Finnish forests have a different legal status from berry pickers – usually from Europe – who do the same work on land owned by farmers. The latter usually have employment contracts.

In 2014 the Finnish Labour Council determined that dissatisfied labourers who quit their jobs did not, in fact, have labour contracts with their employers. That dispute is still the subject of an ongoing court case.

In the same year, a report commissioned by the Foreign Ministry proposed that berry pickers should be made contract workers. However the proposal did not move forward and officials decided on a simpler approach to improving the status of berry pickers that included a minimum wage and a set of common rules for the sector.

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Marjanpoimijoita majoitustilassaan.
The berry pickers' base camp in Central Finland. Image: Sisä-Suomen poliisi

Last summer the regional daily Savon Sanomat reported that Thai officials had warned their citizens against travelling to Finland because of low wages and poor working conditions.

Call for contracts for berry workers

Entrepreneurs employing workers to pick berries in Finnish forests strongly oppose change the status of labourers to make them contract workers.

However Koskinen said that people who come to pick berries on farmers’ land and those who are sent out to harvest the fruit in forests should receive the same treatment.

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Washing up station at the workers' camp. Image: Sisä-Suomen poliisi

"Common ground rules don’t appear to be working. For some reason forest pickers have found themselves in a different situation. The reason may be that they come from a completely different culture and may be happy to settle for lower compensation," he speculated.

The academic admitted that the forest workers are to some extent more susceptible to extreme variations in crop quality, which in turn also affects the price paid for the berries. He noted that it is one of the reasons why business owners have resisted upgrading the status of workers.

However he noted that the problem could be addressed by adopting performance-based pay, a practice at play in other kinds of jobs.

"It is odd that this has not been resolved. We are a developed western country and yet we treat berry pickers in a completely different way than we should in a country like this," he said.

The court is expected to hand down a verdict in the case early next year.

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