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Thai berry pickers denied leave to appeal ruling over rights, pay in Finland

"This [ruling] shows that berry pickers in Finland have no legal protections," a lawyer for the group said.

Thaipoimijoita valmistautumassa metsään lähtöön.
Image: Jarmo Nuotio / Yle

Finland’s Supreme Court has rejected a group of Thai berry pickers’ application to appeal previous verdicts in cases concerning their rights and compensation.

The highest court’s decision marks the end of a long-running legal dispute that began in 2013 and involved a group of 15 berry pickers and their former employer, a berry-picking firm based in Sotkamo, eastern Finland.

Previously, both a district and an appellate court had rejected the Thai group’s claims. The case turned on a dispute between the berry pickers and the entrepreneur over their rights, their treatment and the compensation they had been paid for their work.

In a previous civil suit filed in 2015, a total of 50 Thai berry pickers had demanded more than 140,000 euros in compensation from the Sotkamo firm. A Kajaani prosecutor had also previously refused to investigate a human trafficking complaint filed by a group of 50 berry pickers working for Ber-Ex in eastern Finland.

Forced to take high-interest loans

The pickers said that they had been effectively forced to take high-interest loans from the Sotkamo company, Ber-Ex, which their earnings were then used to repay. The complainants said that the kilogram price that they were paid for the berries they picked was also lower than the price they had previously negotiated with the firm. In 2015, Ber-Ex was sold to the Arctic International Group.

The lower courts rejected the berry pickers’ claims and ruled that they had agreed a fixed price for the berries they collected. However the rulings also acknowledged that the contracts had been agreed on a variable market price.

The group’s lawyer, Ville Hoikkala, said he had not yet been in touch with his clients and that the Supreme Court’s decision came as a disappointment, but not a surprise.

"We have known about this situation for a long time. This shows that berry pickers in Finland have no legal protections and that berry wholesalers have the right to pay whatever they want, whenever they want," Hoikkala declared.

He said however that the matter may still be handled out-of-court.

"Now the juridical side of the matter has run its course and it will become a public discussion. I look forward to seeing how social discourse deals with it," Hoikkala added.

Pickers not afforded worker protections

In another case involving Thai berry pickers, the owner of a berry wholesale firm was convicted on human trafficking charges and slapped with a 20-month suspended prison sentence and was also ordered to pay costs amounting to 30,000 euros.

The central Finland court that ruled on the case found the defendant guilty of trafficking 26 Thai nationals as well as fraud and waste management violations.

Berry pickers in Finland have been regarded as individual entrepreneurs and therefore do not enjoy the protections that collective bargaining agreements which are ordinarily extended to workers.

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