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Employment ministry to help set up safety measures for next year's migrant berry pickers

Due to tight living conditions that caused local outbreaks, nearly 300 berry pickers were diagnosed with Covid-19 in July and August.

Roughly 3,000 Thai nationals arrived in Finland to pick berries in July and August. Image: Vesa-Pekka Hiltunen / Yle

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment has announced plans to participate in improving operating models for companies that hire foreign berry pickers.

This summer there were several isolated outbreaks of Covid-19 among nearly 300 berry pickers in Finland, most of whom were from Thailand. As the situation worsened, the Southeast Asian country demanded an explanation from Finnish authorities in August about the migrants' living conditions.

It was determined that one reason the infections spread so rapidly among the pickers was due to people who were ordered into quarantine were living in the same quarters as others who were not ordered to isolate.

Employment ministry government advisor Olli Sorainen said that, going forward, more attention will be paid to matters surrounding the pickers' living conditions and that new regulations can be expected to be rolled out.

"At the end of this year's berry-picking season, authorities will discuss with berry picking firms to assess what went well and what went wrong over the season. The conclusion drawn from those conversations will have a direct impact on the procedures and conditions that will need to be followed next year," Sorainen said.

Roughly 3,000 Thai nationals arrived in Finland to pick berries in July and August. Local authorities were supposed to have been informed about where the berry pickers' residential camps would be located, but those details did not come to the attention of all affected municipalities or health care districts.

Clear instructions lacking

This lack of information led to proper contingency plans not being made, prompting the outbreaks to worsen. According to the chief infectious diseases doctor of the Lapland Hospital District, Markku Broas, the berry picking firms should have given clear instructions well in advance of the pickers' arrivals.

"It would have been possible to work together to develop safety guidelines and to examine the operations environment, and to discuss what actions to take if there are [coronavirus] infections," he said.

Broas said the problems could have been avoided if local health authorities had received information about the arrivals in a timely manner.

"It would have been possible to consider [things like] isolation and quarantine facilities, where they would be located and whether they were appropriate for such use," he said.

In some cases Covid-positive pickers were transferred to different locations around Finland by berry picking firms — against the guidance of health authorities.

The localised outbreaks were worst among pickers in Rovaniemi, where more than 180 out of 262 were diagnosed with Covid-19.

Broas said that the berry pickers were tested for coronavirus infections three times during the process of coming to Finland but that cases were missed.

"A third negative test on the third day of [incubation] does not rule out the possibility that an infection has started. Our interpretation is that this is what happened," he said, adding that he thinks the pickers brought the illness as they arrived.

"We did not see infections outside of the berry picking groups [in the region]. That suggests the infections originally came from Thailand," Broas said.