Borders in berryland

Berry pickers from Finland worry industry

3:26 min

It looks like the rules that were supposed to clean up the business of foreign workers coming to Sweden to pick berries is being circumvented. By berry pickers travelling to Sweden - from Finland.

For the last few years, every year, there has been a number of tragic and sometimes even dramatic stories of people coming to Sweden from as far as Thailand, China and Vietnam to pick berries - blueberries, lingonberries, cloudberries - in the Swedish woods.

Shady agencies promising the world to already poor people, who then end up working extremely long hours, and not earning much at all. Many of the far-travelling berry pickers have borrowed money to come here, therefore many have also been forced to return to their country in debt, either because there were too few berries and too many to pick them, or because the agency charged overprices for food and accommodation, or - as also happened last year - because the person who had recruited them simply disappeared with all the money.

In an attempt to clean up the business, the Swedish authorities have tried to limit the number of working permits and visas for migrant berry pickers. And last year, a minimum wage was also introduced, which would cover also the foreign berry pickers.

In Finland, none of these rules exist. There people can come and pick berries on a normal tourist visa. And perhaps that is why the customs along the border between Finland and Sweden has started seeing a new phenomenon. Svante Pouno, head of the customs in Karesuando, has seen numerous Finnish-registered cars packed full with Thai berry pickers, daily crossing the borders into Sweden.

"This is a new tendency," he told Swedish Radio News. "you see them coming over in very old and run down cars, six seven of them in an old Lada. This is a new procedure."

There is nothing stopping Thai people with a tourist visa in Finland to cross the border into Sweden, as both countries are part of the Schengen agreement. But Alejandro Firpo, lawyer at the Migration Boards work permit department, says they are not allowed to work here.

"There's a risk that this is illegal," he says. A person from a third country cannot work in Sweden unless they have a work permit in Sweden. You are not allowed to have a tourist visa in Finland and work in Sweden. That is just not allowed!"

As it is a year with very few berries, Swedish berry picking companies have expressed concern about the competition from the east. They claim that the Finnish berry picking companies deliberately send the berry pickers across the border to Sweden.

But Risto Isohätäla, owner of a Finnish berry company in Kolari, Finland, across the border from Pajala, says he tells his berry pickers they should stay in Finland.

"But I can't go after several hundred thai workers. I can't follow each car, that would be impossible!"

According to Alejandro Firpo at the Migration Board, his agency may start a dialogue with the Finnish authorities after the berry season.

"But", he says, "no one has pointed out that this was a problem. And no-one from the border police up north has called to say they have any problems with people coming over with Finnish work permits."