WEDNESDAY, April 17, 2024

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

It’s been 18 years since the first batch of Thai workers travelled to Finland and Sweden to pick berries. Since then more than 110,000 Thai workers have travelled across continents for the lure of 130,000 - 150,000 baht for their two months of hard labour.

Many farmers from the Northeast of Thailand took out loans ranging from 50,000 to 160,000 baht per person from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives and illegal lenders in Thailand to work in Finland and Sweden.

The commission to the berry collecting companies, the travel expenses from Thailand and living expenses, such as accommodation, car rentals and fuels in Finland and Sweden, on average total 150,000 baht per person, leaving many of them with nothing to show for their hard labour, and even indebted.

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

Modern-day human trafficking

“When calculated over an 18-year period, it would be found that there has been a transfer of wealth totalling 10 billion baht from impoverished farmers in Thailand to the forest berry industries of Sweden and Finland. This is a loss that has never been discussed,” Junya Yimprasert, a labour activist from ACT4DEM, said.

Thailand has been easy pickings for the European berry companies. She explained that in 2010, the Swedish and Finnish governments chose to source workers from China and Vietnam instead. However, within just a few weeks, these workers raised an uproar due to the harsh working conditions and returned to their home countries, leading to their governments closing the doors for berry collecting jobs by their citizens.

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

The berry companies prevented the berry pickers from filing police complaints by threatening to blacklist them, said Junya, adding that the method was effective as these cartels shared the names of “hard-headed workers” among them.

“Thus, even if a worker applies to work for another company, they would be rejected or told that their visa was not approved,” the activist added.

In 2022, middlemen told workers they would be paid around 130,000 baht a month. However, by the end of the season, the actual expenses deducted by the company in Sweden and Finland amounted to 160,000 baht, leaving the Thai berry pickers returning home in debt.

Expense breakdown

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

This forced the workers to borrow additional money using their land, houses and cars as collateral, with amounts ranging from 20,000 to 150,000 baht per person and interest rates ranging from 3% to 20%.

At the end of the season, the company would deduct around 150,000-160,000 baht from the workers' earnings. If any income remained to be paid out, the company would give it in cash or transfer it to the workers' accounts. But as they were paid at the last minute before their departure to their home country, they were helpless and unable to report the matter to the authorities.

Workers who fail to receive the money before returning home, slide deeper into debt, as they have to borrow more, sell their assets, or have their property seized because of their inability to deal with their debt.

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

Praisanti Jumangwa, a berry picker who worked in Finland in 2013, returned to Thailand and filed lawsuits with the court and a human trafficking complaint with the DSI. This was 10 years ago, and Praisanti, along with many other workers, is still waiting for justice.

Tough life

The life of the workers is one of hard toil. They start picking berries at 4am. Their lunch is rice and two hard-boiled eggs to fuel their tired bodies. The day’s harvesting ends at around 11pm. After collecting all the berries together and weighing them, they go to bed at 1am, only to start work again after a few hours of rest.

This routine went on for two whole months. The goal was to collect at least 50 kilos of berries per day. Workers earned 1.4 euros per kilogram, while the selling price in the market was 6-7 euros per kilo, Praisanti said.

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

Workers would discover how much they were getting paid only while boarding the plane to return to Thailand. After deductions for their camp stays, fuel, and car rentals they often found themselves in debt of at least 20,000 baht to the berry agencies, despite being promised a salary of 130,000 baht for their two months of hard labour, he said.

“The company provided an advance of 30,000 baht, but with an exorbitant interest of 20%. Even though I managed to harvest 5-6 tons of fruit, I still didn't have any money left,” the former berry picker said.

Despite being charged a substantial amount for accommodation, the place was cramped, housing 7-8 workers in a room. Even a simple meal like boiled cabbage with a bit of pork was costly.

Workers paid high rates to rent cars, which were old and occasionally broke down in the middle of nowhere. This meant that on those days, workers couldn’t harvest any fruit, despite every penny being deducted.

Praisanti said, “I was extremely exhausted, and with little food intake, my body couldn’t cope because of the strenuous work. Harvesting of berries is done in the forest. We berry pickers need to venture in and collect them by ourselves and sometimes drive 50-60 kilometres to find berries, and sometimes drive 300km in one go."

Prasanti said he once had to drive to Sweden to collect them and then bring them back to Finland to sell.

“Thai people struggled to work, and even when they returned, they remained in debt because they weren't paid. I went there and incurred expenses of almost 200,000 baht,” he said. 

Thai berry pickers in Europe — a case of the poor getting poorer

"Out of my group of 50 people, none of us received wages until the Thai ambassador to Finland intervened. Finally, the company paid only 30 out of the 50 people after we returned to Thailand. Some received as little as 100-200 euros, and the highest amount anyone received was 1,000 euros, which is about 40,000 - 50,000 baht. However, Thai labourers are in debt by hundreds of thousands already, and the money is not enough. There are still 20 people who haven't received any money to this day,” he said.

Deal between governments

Praisanti urged the Thai Ministry of Labour to broker agreements directly between governments, not through private agencies, to protect workers from losses. He highlighted that debts incurred from working in Sweden and Finland had led to loss of assets and even broken families.