Thai Berry Pickers Soon to Leave Sweden
A couple of hundred disappointed berry-pickers from Thailand have spent this week on mattresses in a sports hall in Luleå in northern Sweden.
They had come here thinking they would earn money, but instead they have run into debt and are now longing to get home, as quickly as possible.
The situation in the sports hall in Luleå has engaged large parts of the local community: a crisis team from the council is there, church representatives are there and the Thai Association in town is cooking food for everybody and helping to interpret.
The 200 or so berry-pickers came here on Sunday, having heard that the Thai Minister of Labour was in town. Some of them had travelled over 100 kilometres to meet the Minister, and to complain about their working and living conditions.
They had been told that by picking blueberries, lingonberries and cloudberries in forests of northern Sweden, they could in a few months earn as much as they would in a year in Thailand. The recruitment company lent them 2500 dollars and more to pay for the trip and their expenses, money - they were told - they easily would earn once they were in Sweden.
But in the sports hall in Luleå there are people who say they have worked from three in the morning to eight o'clock at night, without making much profit at all.
Part of the problem, says a representative at the Thai Embassy in Stockholm, is that this year about 6000 foreigners, most of them from Thailand, have come to Sweden to pick berries. That can be compared to 3500 last year, and less than half of that the year before.
Also, whereas the price for a kilo of berries last year was 18 crowns, when they first arrive this year, it was down to 10 crowns. That has gone up a bit now, to 14 crowns, but it is still much less than last year. On top of that, this year has turned out to be not a very good berry year. There just is not much of it.
So, once they had arrived in Luleå to meet the Minister, the berry pickers did not want to return to the camp, where some of them owed money for accommodation, food and petrol here in Sweden. Instead they wanted to go home, and that as fast as possible.
On Wednesday, Karl Petersen, the head of the local council in Luleå wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, calling for him to help the berry pickers. He reminded the Prime Minister of the effort of Thai people and the Thai authorities to help the many Swedes that were affected by the tsunami in Thailand five years ago.
Now, the immediate situation seems to have been solved. Luleå town will pay for the bus trip to take the people the 900 kilometres down to Stockholm, stopping at the camp sites to pick up their luggage and passports. In Stockholm, the Thai Embassy is helping people to re-book their tickets home.
Exactly what will happen with their debt is still unclear. There were reports that the Thai government has promised to help those in debt and transfer money to their accounts, but according to a representative of the Embassy in Stockholm it is a case of people filing lawsuits against the recruitment companies once they are back in Thailand.