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Berry pickers arrive in Finland, but will they be safe from Covid?

One local health expert says nobody is making sure the farms welcoming seasonal workers have infection control plans in place.

Ulkomaista työvoimaa mansikkatilalla Suonenjoella. Mansikkojen kasvatusastioita rakennetaan.
Finland's berry farming industry relies on cheap foreign labour, particularly during the summer months. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

It is just after 4:30 in the morning when the first charter flight from Kiev lands at Kuopio airport.

The plane is full of Ukrainian seasonal workers due to begin jobs on Finnish farms. They take their first coronavirus test immediately after passport control. They also take a test three days later, otherwise the workers would have to be quarantined for two weeks before starting their jobs as farm labourers.

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Ukrainalaisia marjanpoimijoita saapuu Kuopion lentoasemalle
Ukraininan workers arrive in Kuopio on a charter flight. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

A further 14 charter flights like this are due to arrive in Kuopio in coming weeks. In addition to Kuopio, workers will also be flown to Helsinki and Turku during June and July. In total, more than 30 charter flights will be operated from Kiev to Helsinki.

More than 10,000 berry pickers on the way

A lot of the strawberry farms in Suonenjoki have had Ukrainian workers at work since the spring, including Metsäpello berry farm. A team of thirteen Ukrainians is at work on the farm, installing the polytunnels that the berries grow under.

The number of workers at Metsäpello will soon multiply, as more than 10,000 foreign berry pickers arrive in Finland. Around one in five of them will come to the Suonenjoki area.

"In all we will have 60-70 seasonal workers on hand," estimates Pauliina Kovanen, Metsäpello's owner.

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marjatilayrittäjä Pauliina Kovanen, Metsäpellon Mansikat
Pauliina Kovanen's farm in Suonenjoki has been using foreign workers for a few months already this year. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

Quarantine plans

Berry farms must draw up a special health and safety plan for seasonal workers coming to work in Finland. The farm must submit the details of foreign workers to the municipal doctor responsible for communicable diseases, and at the same time they must think in advance about what to do if one of the farm's workers falls ill with coronavirus.

"It's to do with how accommodation and working arrangements will be organised," Kovanen says.

Kovanen has already set aside one building for people with coronavirus symptoms to self-isolate. The building has bedrooms, as well as separate shower and toilet facilities

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Ulkomaisten marjanpoimijoiden käyttämiä majoitustiloja Suonenjoella
The quarantine building at Metsäpello berry farm has separate facilities for workers who show coronavirus symptoms. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

"No one is watching"

While an infection control plan is a requirement for any farm using foreign labour, the quality of the plans can vary significantly.

"You see all sorts. There are detailed plans, ten-plus-page plans, but also one-page handwritten plans," says Irja Vehniäinen, an infectious disease nurse at the Sisä-Savo Healthcare Association.

It is compulsory for a farm to have a plan, but it is not compulsory to submit the plan to the health authority. There is no mechanism in place to monitor whether or not a farm has drawn up a plan for handling coronavirus cases at all.

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Irja Vehniäinen, Sisä-Savon terveydenhuollon kuntayhtymä
Nurse Irja Vehniäinen says the authorities aren't making sure farmers have coronavirus plans in place. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

What happens then?

"Well, that's the thing. I can't answer that," Vehniäinen says.

The question makes berry farm owner Pauliina Kovanen pause.

"Unfortunately, there are all kinds of people in business, so anything is always possible."

According to Kovanen, there has been a lot of publicity and there are also detailed instructions on how to draw up a plan.

"The bar has been set very low," she says.

Responsibility lies with the farmers

Sirpa Lintunen also considers the risks of not having a plan. She represents Töitä Suomesta, a company that facilitates the use of foreign farm workers in Finland.

"Nobody wants a chain of infection to spread on a farm. It would be a very bad advertisement for the region," she says.

"I trust the farmers' sense of responsibility in this matter."

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Sirpa Lintunen, yhteyshenkilö, MTK Pohjois-Savo / Töitä Suomesta Oy
Sirpa Lintunen from Töitä Suomesta says infection control plans are a farmer's responsibility. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

Metsäpello berry farm, for its part, is working on the assumption that it may not be possible to completely avoid coronavirus cases.

"It is very likely that such cases will occur. We have to be prepared for that," farm owner Kovanen says.

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