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40 Thai berry pickers to testify in human trafficking trial in Finnish court

A Finnish berry entrepreneur faces human trafficking charges at Central Finland District Court in a criminal trial which is expected to last months. The head of the firm is accused of bringing Thai nationals to Finland and forcing them to work under conditions which violated human dignity.

Migrant Thai worker picking bilberries, file photo. Bilberries - also known as wild European blueberries - look like small blueberries. Image: Yle

The head of a Finnish berry company faces possible penalties of a three-year prison sentence and paying compensation of some 60,000 euros to the company's former workers in a human trafficking trial which began at Central Finland District Court more than a week ago.

Due to anticipated testimony from some 40 witnesses from abroad, the trial is expected to last into December.

The berry firm chief stands accused of forcing 26 Thai migrant labourers to work under inhumane conditions during the summer of 2016.

The prosecutor says that the berry picking company housed the visiting pickers in shipping containers or in buses and that the pickers' passports were seized when they arrived.

Prosecutor: Pickers paid one euro per litre, forced to pay for equipment

According to the prosecutor the workers were forced to pay for necessary items like accommodation and transportation.

The workers were also allegedly forced to pay for required berry-picking tools, while only being paid one euro per litre of bilberries they managed to pick. The workers allegedly worked 12 to 15 hours per day, every day of the week, for the duration of their stay in Finland.

The prosecutor claims that some of the workers did not manage to earn any money the entire season, but rather were in debt to the company in the lopsided arrangement.

The defendant has denied the charges made against him.

According to the prosecutor the defendant took advantage of the workers' situation, because they could not speak the language and did not have any money to begin with.

Some 40 former employees of the company are expected to be flown from Thailand to testify in the trial, which will likely conclude in the middle of December.

Trial likely costly

The Finnish state will foot the bill for travel and accommodation for some 40 Thai witnesses to testify in the case.

The berry company could be ordered to reimburse the state for some of those costs - if the defendant is found guilty.

When the trial began, Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat reported that the witnesses would be flown from Bangkok via Helsinki to central Jyväskylä and spend two nights in a hotel.

Judge Matti Kuuliala said that it was the defendant who demanded that witnesses testify in person and not via a video link, the paper reported.

"I've had this job for thirty years, and am not aware that anything like this has been done before," Kuuliala was quoted saying by the paper (siirryt toiseen palveluun) on October 10.

*Bilberries look like small blueberries and are also known as wild European blueberries.