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A berry bad summer

25 August 2010

Click on the photo to see why they like berries

Vietnamese farm-workers recently locked up their bosses to protest against low pay and hard working conditions. Their action might well have gone unnoticed except for one thing: It happened in Lapland.

What were Vietnamese workers doing in northern Sweden? Picking berries, or trying to. Every summer, the Nordic forests fill up with delicious fruit – blueberries, lingonberries and the amber-coloured cloudberry. Collecting them is a favourite summer pastime, and, thanks to the “right to roam” allemansrätten law, people in Sweden are more or less free to pick berries wherever they find them.  


But in recent years, this tradition has become commercialised, with thousands of foreign workers flying in to reap the wild harvest. In the past, many were rice farmers from Thailand. They planted their rice in June, travelled to Sweden for the summer berry season, and then returned home to harvest their own rice crop in the autumn. As Bertil Lintner writes, the work was hard but lucrative, with workers bringing home between $2,850 and $5,700 – “much more than a doctor or other well-paid professional back in Thailand”.

Lately, however, the annual trek has become less rewarding. Travelling to Sweden has become more expensive and the berries are harder to find. One picker told the Bangkok Post that he used to be able to find wild berries within 20 kilometres of a town centre. But these days he has to drive 100 to 400 kilometres. In part that’s just because some years are good for berries and some are not. But it also reflects growing competition.    

Problems came to a head this summer with the arrival of workers from China and Vietnam. Not only did they hit a bad summer for berries but, according to locals, many were spooked by the mosquito-ridden northern forests and had little farming experience.

 The workers also complained of impossible targets. One of them, Le Thi Hong, said the recruiting agency had promised workers they would be able to pick between 60 and 120 kilograms of berries a day, Västerbottens Folkblad reported. In reality, he said, they were lucky if they could manage 10 to 30 kg. Workers had mortgaged their homes to travel to Sweden, he added, and risked losing them if they didn’t meet their targets. Discontent led the Chinese and Vietnamese pickers to stage a series of protests over the summer, including locking up their bosses and going on a 15-kilometre night march.

The story is unusual but, unfortunately, not all that rare. Fruit-picking can provide useful, short-term labour, but it’s also often rife with scams. Many pickers are hired by contractors and may have to pay relatively high up-front fees, which they can only earn back by meeting quotas. Many also are seasonal workers, and so may have limited protection under labour laws. (And, while there’s no suggestion of forced labour in Sweden, in the worst cases farm-workers – both locals and migrants – may effectively be slave labour, as this ILO report discusses.)

Sweden has tried to protect the pickers by issuing warnings about scams through its embassies and imposing a minimum wage. Local unions, however, say more needs to be done. But in reality there’s probably only so much the government can do: So long as hiring agencies in the pickers’ home countries create unrealistic expectations, would-be fruit pickers are going to be open to exploitation. Back in Sweden, there have been calls for a boycott of commercially picked berries to show support for pickers who have been unfairly treated. But, as Isabel Conway comments, the idea of giving up their beloved berries “may be a sacrifice too hard for many Swedes to swallow”.

 Useful links

OECD Insights: International Migration

 OECD work on international migration

Social issues (including migration) at the OECD iLibrary

The International Labour Organisation

Migration and asylum policy in Sweden (government website)

One Response leave one →
  1. Therese permalink
    August 25, 2010

    Interesting post, Brian. The Atlantic ran an expose’ of strawberry pickers in California, migrant workers from Mexico paid below the minimum wage and housed in hovels:

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