By Silvia Tamminen, HTC associate
Much of the reporting on labour trafficking is about domestic servitude or exploitative work conditions in developing countries such as India, Brazil and Mexico. Countries of Northern Europe, such as Finland, are rarely associated with labour exploitation and human rights violations. However, human trafficking has been suspected in Finland’s vast and traditional berry industry since 2007, and 2013 brought the first police investigation. Since 2005, Finland’s berry companies have recruited temporary laborers from developing countries—primarily Thailand— for work in the berry fields of Northern Finland during the summer months. In 2013, the government granted more than 4,000 visas to foreign berry pickers. This increased labour force aided in turning the declining berry industry into a booming one. This employment relationship, however, wasn’t mutually beneficial, as many Thai workers found themselves in highly exploitative working conditions.
Since 2007, the Ombudsman for Minorities in Finland – who is also the National Rapporteur for Human Trafficking – has been concerned that the foreign labour in the berry industry might be exploitative and suggestive of human trafficking. In 2011, the University of Lapland conducted a government-sponsored study on foreign berry pickers in Finland (Pekka Rantanen and Jarmo Valkonen, 2011). Numerous newspaper articles have also reported the exploitation of foreign berry pickers. According to these sources, berry companies often promise recruits a wage equivalent to six to 12 months of work in their home countries. Earning such sums in only three months is very attractive to recruits from developing countries. However, berry pickers often work 15-hour days, seven days a week, and because the pay is often based on the amount of berries picked, the actual income may be significantly lower if the fields have low yields in a particular season. Furthermore, the foreign berry pickers are typically housed in old schools or camping sites, and as a result, there have been instances where they have not been granted access to affordable medical care. Despite these exploitative situations, many Thai pickers have returned season after season.
The companies recruiting berry pickers arrange the plane tickets, housing, visas, food and domestic travel for the berry pickers. Prior to 2010, the berry pickers were obligated to pay back these costs to the employer. Due to the recommendations of the National Rapporteur, it is now mandatory that companies pay for their employees’ travel and housing costs before visas can be granted. This change was made after it became apparent that some berry pickers who came to Finland returned home with losses because their earnings didn’t exceed the costs of their plane ticket and living expenses. However, because there are no formal employment agreements between the recruitment companies and the migrant workers, the companies are still able to demand repayment after the government has granted visas.
While not all berry picking companies engage in severe labour exploitation or trafficking, some general characteristics surely fit the description of human trafficking. Finland’s Human Trafficking law is recorded in its Penal Code and its definition is in accordance with the United Nations Palermo Protocol, which states that trafficking occurs in any situation where workers are recruited by fraud or deception or are abused by the exploitation of a position of vulnerability.
As defined in the Protocol, if pickers earn less than their promised income due to a low berry yield, then they have been recruited fraudulently or by deception. Furthermore, if the berry pickers acquire debt even before arriving to Finland and additional debt from housing and food costs during their stay, they may find themselves in debt bondage. Debt bondage is a common feature of human trafficking and is characterized by a debt so high the laborer cannot pay it off despite working constantly. Foreign berry pickers in Finland are also vulnerable to exploitation due to language barriers, which increases their dependence on the employer or trafficker.
While there has been much discussion about the existence of trafficking in Finland’s berry picking industry, it was only in the 2013 berry season that approximately 50 Thai pickers notified the police of an exploitative situation that fit the description of human trafficking. This triggered the first police investigation of human trafficking in Finland’s berry industry. While the berry company denied the allegations, it offered to pay the pickers their demanded compensation to settle the dispute in late September. Around the same time, the investigations were adjourned. Despite any convictions on labour exploitation, the investigation was a positive step toward examining trafficking suspicions and abuse of migrant labour rights in Finland.