11 July 2024

A long story about the plight of 26 Thai berry pickers in Finland published on BBC Thai was a sad one, but with a just ending, as the Finnish Supreme Court reached a verdict on January 2ุ6th  and jailed, for one year and ten months, and fined a central Finland berry picking firm on 26 charges of human trafficking.

For ordinary Thais, the news was flabbergasting, as they normally consider Finland to be a paradise and one of the world’s most liveable countries, with everything at a high standard. Clean air, great education, nice forests and no human rights violation, let alone human trafficking.

The victims were Thai berry pickers, who were forced to work 15 hours a day for little or no pay. Like many other pickers, their wages were used to repay debts back home. These are familiar stories for Thai labourers overseas.

According to Thailand’s Ministry of Labour, during the fruit picking season from July to September of 2021, a total of 5,200 pickers went to Sweden and 3,000 went to Finland and sent hundreds of millions of baht back home. In 2020, 5,254 went to the two countries.

Of course, even though Scandinavian countries have the world’s highest standards of human rights, norms and treatment, there have been cases of abuse and trafficking of foreign workers, especially berry pickers.

Kudos must go to both the Thai and Finnish officials who worked on the cases. This was the first time that 26 Thai workers filed complaints with the local police and succeeded in suing their employers, who abused them through maltreatment, including inhumane living conditions, which were unsanitary, unsafe, crowded and a health hazard. Their passports were also seized, which restricted their freedom of movement.

Most of the berry pickers from Thailand have been treated fairly by their employers and only a few are considered to have misbehaved and cheated.

There are two lessons to be learned from the Finnish case. First, the Thai workers must be united if they are collectively abused and raise the issue with the Thai embassy, so that the local authorities can be alerted. In most cases, abuse among the Thai workers in other countries often goes unreported or investigated. Not in this case, however. They were brave and resourceful.

Secondly, Thailand’s Ministry of Labour has to be more rigorous in checking the terms and conditions offered by the companies hiring Thai pickers, especially those which have Thai associates, making sure that the Thai workers will not be cheated. Often times, the Thai officials have been reckless in dispatching pickers to work for questionable companies.

Truth be told, in Finland, wild berry picking is regulated by the so-called “everyman’s right” rule. As such, any picker, foreign or local, is not protected by the labour laws. The Finns love to pick berries and forage for food in the forests. It is part of their beloved culture. Therefore, it is not easy to amend laws to provide legal protection for foreign workers doing the same thing.

Berry picking in Finland and Sweden is a very arduous job, because these berries grow in wide and open mountainous terrain. Pickers have to withstand all kinds of unpredictable circumstances, including inferior sanitation and accommodation. These days, Scandinavia wide, berries are in big demand and pricy, especially for the cosmetic and health supplement industries. They command a very high price in China and Japan.

From now on, it is hoped that the Finnish and Thai authorities will be working together to close the legal loopholes, to ensure that the recruitment system for Thai berry pickers will prevent any future attempts to traffic in humans.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn