18 nightmare years: Thai berry pickers’ long fight for justice

Story by Sasitorn Aksornwilai

Cover illustration by Kittiya On-in

“It is propaganda that lures people in because everyone has hope. We did not go there relying on luck. We exchanged our labour, thinking to get something in return, but we received nothing,” remarked Jirapa Labyongsree, a 40-year-old Thai berry picker in a Nordic country.

For 18 years since 2006, Finland and Sweden have turned to Thai labour-trafficking agencies to recruit Thai workers to pick berries for them. Thousands of Thai farmers, primarily from the northeastern provinces, left their homes to be berry-pickers in the Nordic countries. They hoped to improve their quality of life upon returning home.

Around 100,000 Thai farmers during these 18 years were brought to Finland and Sweden by 13 berry companies.

While some achieved their goals, earning more than 100,000 baht (≈ 2,750 USD), many others came home empty-handed or in debt. Some have experienced bankruptcy.

Junya Yimprasert, founder of ACT4DEM, has helped Thai berry pickers in Finland with 2,240 complaints since 2009. Among these, 400 cases are still pending and only 26 cases ended in victory in 2018.

“There is no job where you work two months and return home, still having to pay off debts,” said Junya.

She pointed out that the main reason that allows this system to deceive workers is the quota announced by the Ministry of Labour regarding how many jobs are available each year, which leads most people to think that the jobs are legal.

Thai berry pickers invest heavily in travelling across continents to work but return with meagre earnings. Some earned only a few hundred Euros or around 175 baht(≈ <5 USD) per day. Meanwhile, the current minimum daily wage in Thailand is 328 baht (≈ 9 USD).

During these 18 years, around 120,000 visas were issued to the Thai berry pickers. Each of them paid 50,000 -100,000 baht (≈ 1,300-2,7000 USD) in Thailand to get a job in this industry.

Hoping that she would earn money to develop her farm in her hometown, Jirapa told Prachatai that she decided to be a berry picker in Finland last year.

She said she was persuaded by her friends in her village and promised by the berry company’s agency that she would earn approximately 100,000 baht. Jirapa truly expected that when she returned home, she would not have to take on additional jobs to make end meets.

Jirapa Larbyongsree (on the left side)

Unfortunately, Jirapa did not earn the amount of money she expected and had to work hard to pay off her debts to the berry company.

Praisanti Jum-angwa, a farmer from Chaiyaphum Province, has been waiting for justice since 2013. He was brought to Finland by the berry company Ber-Ex Oy.

He is one of the Thai farmers who believed that berry picking in a developed country would enable him to improve his family’s financial situation.

Praisanti Jum-angwa

He, like many others, was convinced by villagers who had gone to Finland and returned with a large amount of money.

He revealed that some Thai farmers were told that they did not have to invest much because the companies would provide everything, but in reality, they were being lured into working for free.

“It is true that the companies pay everything, but you have to work for free. Is there any country where you go to work but do not earn money?  You work, so you must earn money”, remarked Praisanti.

Phon (pseudonym), a villager from a northeastern province said she went to Sweden from July to October 2022. Like those in Finland, Thai berry-pickers in Sweden were burdened with debt and had to work to repay the company.

 

A high price to pay

“The cost of accommodation and travel, and even the cost of the bus to pick up workers to go to the farms have to be paid for by ourselves. The money that the company advances has to be repaid with interest. The company exploits the workers a lot,” said Jirapa.

When he decided to go to Finland in 2013, Praisanti was required to pay a deposit of 20,000 baht (≈ 550 USD) in December 2012 and an additional 50,000 baht (≈ 1,380 USD) in April 2013.

Despite not being a client, the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives approved a 50,000 baht loan for him. This is because the company issued a letter guaranteeing an income of 204,000 baht (≈ 5,600 USD) he would earn during 60 days in Finland.

“When we obtained a visa, the company said it would give us 1.80 euros per kilogram, but when in fact we got there, it gave us only 1.40 euros per kilogram,” said Praisanti.

Despite paying the company a large amount of money, the berry pickers must pay for housing and transportation provided by the company. They also needed to cover the cost of fuel.

Some berry pickers were required to sign a loan contract, without being informed of the interest rate and the total amount of money they needed to repay. This led them to unknowingly work for free. Many were intimidated by the company and told they would be sued if they could not repay their debt.

 

The plight of the berry pickers

The berry pickers were forced to work under unbearable conditions for 12-20 hours per day without a day off. Thai workers had to work very hard to cover their expenses, including flight tickets, accommodation, and transportation paid in advance by the companies, leaving them with huge debts.

They lived in crowded conditions, with some sleeping in the kitchen. Work started at 3:00 am, and after returning to the camp at around 8:00 pm, they had to weigh the berries. It was midnight before they could rest.

Jirapa explained that the workers’ income is based on the weight of the berries they harvested. Prices vary, depending on how difficult or easy it is to harvest the berries. The company did not provide clear information to the berry pickers regarding how much they collected or how much they actually earned.

Jirapa stated that there was no guaranteed minimum income, leaving them unable to claim fair compensation. Unfortunately, most of the workers were not aware of this fact until they experienced it.

Praisanti added that he was promised the option to relocate to another camp if there were no berries to pick, but when he and others requested this, they were denied. The company gave them an ultimatum – return to Thailand or stay and accept the conditions.

Unlike cultivated berries, wild berries are located in the forests, making the job quite challenging. The berry pickers have to walk long distances carrying tens of kilograms of berries.

Those who fall ill face difficulties as the camp management refuses to take them to see a doctor. They must buy medicine on their own or use medicine brought from Thailand.

“If we do not go to work one day, we will not earn any money, but we still have to pay for accommodation and transportation as usual,” said Praisanti.

He noted that the price of 50 kilograms of berries would cover the accommodation and transportation cost owed to the company. In order to earn a profit, the berry pickers should pick around 70 kilograms.

Praisanti further revealed that there was an attempt to confiscate the workers’ passports at his camp, but it was unsuccessful. It was later discovered that in other camps, staff had successfully taken away the passports of his Thai friends.

After working for only one month, the company insisted on sending the workers back to Thailand, using intimidation tactics to force them out.

“We demanded that if they sent us back home, they should pay us for the berries we picked in one month’s work, but they refused to pay. They said that we owed them.”

For those in Sweden, Phon stated that the company did not provide proper care to the berry pickers from the beginning of their journey. While travelling around the country to harvest berries, the company provided them with a vehicle without the required vehicle taxes.

A photo showing when the police pulled over the car used for picking berries

In Sweden, berry pickers have been provided with employment contracts promising a minimum wage since 2009. However, the situation in Sweden was no different because the contract was nothing more than empty promises.

Phon recounted that she earned only 300 Swedish krona or around 1,000 Thai baht (≈ 27 USD).

And when they returned to Thailand, Phon and other Thai berry pickers received legal letters from the company’s lawyers demanding that they repay the debt within seven days.

 

A long-awaited call for change

Praisanti is one of the Thai berry pickers who filed a complaint after returning to Thailand in 2014. He stated that after the workers were provided assistance by the Thai authorities in Finland, the company promised to pay wages, but only around 30 out of 50 people got paid, leaving the rest unpaid until today.

Praisanti spent around 100,000 baht to be a berry picker, yet the company paid him only 50,000 baht in return. He remains burdened with debt to the company.

Praisanti revealed that at the time, news about the Thai berry pickers drew attention in Finland, particularly from the Finish unions which engaged in discussions with the berry company and urged their government to take action. Unfortunately, the issue received far less attention in his homeland. No spotlight was shed on Thai berry pickers.

He had never imagined that being a berry picker would lead to such hardships. He pointed out that one significant reason Thai farmers decided to go to Finland was due to an agreement between Thailand’s Ministry of Labour and the berry companies, which seemed to promise legal protection to Thai workers, but reality proved otherwise.

Despite the high costs of damage incurred, the Ministry of Labour insists on sending the farmers to these countries every year without properly addressing the issue, he said

According to Department of Employment data as of 26 September 2023, Thais are still recruited to pick wild berries, with this year 1,155 in Finland and 958 in Sweden.

Praisanti and the other Thai berry pickers filed a complaint claiming human trafficking and calling on the Thai government to investigate in 2014. Their case faced difficulties as they were not recognised as the company’s employees. The legal process was halted following the 2014 coup and it was not until 2022 that Prasanti was notified of progress in the case.

It was not good news for the Thai berry pickers. The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) issued an official letter, stating that its investigation found no corruption on the part of the berry company, and the company had abided by the framework of the law in taking Thai people abroad. As a result, the DSI ceased its investigation.

The company still operates as usual and is still recruiting Thais.

In this regard, Junya pointed out that Thailand has never seriously addressed the issue and if it had been properly addressed, there would not be such a large number of victims.

 

Hopes for a silver lining

Praisanti said the berry pickers need the relevant agencies to pay compensation because most of the berry pickers are in debt. Some have had their assets seized, and many have faced family issues due to being unable to repay the debt.

He argued that the recruitment of Thai people as berry pickers should be conducted under a government-to-government agreement, without private agencies or other intermediaries involved.

Junya, who has witnessed unfair treatment of Thai berry pickers for over 10 years, calls for an immediate halt to the current system until a fair agreement has been negotiated.

“If the (berry) companies have real needs, they must pay. There must be a strong legal framework governing labour to pay workers according to the hours they have worked,” said Junya.

Junya reiterated the importance of ensuring that assistance reaches not only those who file complaints but also those who have suffered silently for a decade.

The taxes and benefits Finland and Sweden have gained from exploiting Thai berry pickers should be used to compensate them. The DSI and the Ministry of Justice must establish a committee to oversee the investigation. She remarked that a strong government is essential to make these processes successful.

“I hope that Thai authorities will seriously solve this issue, rather than letting it persist from 2005 until the present,” one of the berry pickers remarked.

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