Thai berry-pickers’ lawsuit against Finnish company begins

A Finnish court has held the first hearing in a lawsuit filed by 50 Thai labourers against a Finnish company for inadequate working conditions. If found guilty, the company will have to pay 12 million baht (313,000 euros) in compensation. 
On 31 May 2017, five Thai workers attended a trial at Kainuu Provincial Court, Finland, representing 50 Thai berry-pickers who are suing the company Ber-Ex. 
The 50 berry-pickers who filed the lawsuit (Photo from Junya Yimprasert)
One of the berry-pickers, Wasan Manbokae from Khon Kaen Province, told the court that in September 2013, Ber-Ex's agency persuaded him to accept a forest berry-picking job in Finland. Wasan agreed and also invited numerous friends to go with him.
But the reality was not as attractive as he had expected. Wasan was initially promised 1.8 euros for every kilo of berries he collected but the company actually paid him 1.4 euros per kilo, reasoning that this reflected market prices.
The company also relocated the workers to an area with fewer berries, meaning their wages were not enough to cover living costs. The workers subsequently protested against the company, asking to be moved back to the area with more berries.
The company replied by pressuring the berry pickers to return to Thailand earlier than scheduled and sent police officers to expel the workers from their camps. The workers filed a complaint to the Finnish police in September 2013.      
Finnish police force the pickers to leave the camp (Photo from Junya Yimprasert)
Kannika Muensuk, from Sakon Nakhon Province, reported that six of her family members are now in huge debt after coming back from Finland. She and her boyfriend are together 300,000 baht in debt. 
Each worker had to pay 68,000 baht to the representative broker company in Thailand to cover the costs of travelling to Finland. Yet they arrived with tourist visas and had to work without permits. They also had to cover the costs of food, medicine, working clothes, shelter and travel. Various workers resorted to loans from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives or loan sharks. Many of them are now facing over 160,000 baht in debts.  
Phraisanti Chum-angwa, from Chaiyaphum Province, hopes the verdict will improve working conditions and standards for future berry-pickers. He wants to make sure pickers will be able to bring enough money back home and work legally. 
From June to July each year, thousands of Thais travel to Sweden and Finland to pick berries. But in 2016, Arak Phrommanee, Director-General of the Department of Employment, warned that these jobs carry a high risk of fraud if companies ask labourers to cover excessive brokers’ fees. 
Berry-picking itself is a dangerous job, since forest berries usually take root on steep hills, forcing berry pickers to scale long distances in extremely cold weather. Income is also unpredictable because unsettled weather can affect the availability of berries. Workers have to collect at least 50 kilos of berries per day to cover the cost of living.   
The hearing at Kainuu Provincial Court (Photo from Junya Yimprasert)


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