Migrant pickers stranded

BRACKE, Sweden – This land of tall fir
trees and spacious lakes is famed for its wild berries: cloudberries,
blueberries, lingonberries, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries and more.

The problem is, no Swede wants to pick
them, except, perhaps, for a couple of handfuls for dessert.

So a few decades ago, the big
companies in Sweden that are among the world’s largest berry processors began
importing labour for the laborious task of sweeping the rock-strewn woods and
climbing the mountains to find and harvest the berries. The practice of
bringing in migrants – Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Bangladeshis – for the
summer berry season seemed to work well, until recent years.

When a cold snap this spring decimated
the berry crop, it punished the industry and its workers with a second straight
poor harvest. After last year’s disaster, which sent many of the pickers home
weighed down with debt rather than profit, the Swedish authorities required the
berry companies to guarantee a minimum wage of about $2,320 for the season. To
skirt the law, however, the fruit companies in Sweden hired Asian pickers
through recruiting companies in their home countries. Since these companies
were not Swedish, they were not bound by Swedish law, and they refused to pay
their workers the minimum after the crop failed.

For Sweden, which prides itself on
worker-friendly labour legislation – and which sent 20 members of a far-right,
anti-immigrant party to parliament in recent elections – the berry pickers
quickly became the source of acute national embarrassment, with attention
focused particularly on 190 Bangladeshi pickers who arrived in this modest town
of pastel wooden homes earlier this year.

They had been hired in their native
land by a company called Bangladesh Work Force, with the promise of a small
fortune – the sums seemed to vary, depending on who did the promising – if they
went to Sweden to pick berries for the summer. Many Bangladeshis put up as much
as 150,000 taka, about $2,100, to middlemen at Bangladesh Work Force in a
country where a well-paying job as a garment worker brings in about $42 a
month, said Mahmudur Rahman, 31, a biotechnology student at Uppsala University
whose brother and brother-in-law were among workers who arrived last spring.

Rahman said the workers were told they
could earn nearly $10,000 in two months, with even lazy pickers pulling in more
than $5,000.

To earn the full amount, he said they
were told, pickers would have to harvest 60 kilograms of berries a day. Given
the meagre harvest, most of the pickers ended up bringing in as little as 4.5
kilograms, some only a kilogram or so, meaning they earned little or no money.

Some took out loans or sold property
before coming to Sweden, Rahman said.

“It was a summer job that went wrong,”
he said bitterly.

Iqbal Akhtar, 43, left behind a wife
and three children, and was told he could be a cook rather than a berry picker,
preparing meals for about 35 men. He was paid the average of what the berry
pickers received, which was virtually nothing.

“All in all, it’s been very negative,”
he said. To fill their days the men seek odd jobs in town, painting, mowing
lawns or working on farms, though little such work is available.

As summer waned, most of the pickers
returned home, helped by local church groups and the Swedish Red Cross. But
several dozen remain, housed in four unfurnished homes where they sleep on
mattresses on the floor.

The Nordic Food Group is among
Scandinavia’s biggest berry processors. Bertil Qvist, an executive there, said
the requirement that companies pay a minimum wage to the berry pickers forced
reliance on middlemen in Asia, and he blamed those companies for overstating
the money to be made.

“People are invited here on false
grounds,” he said. “They think they are going to pick cultivated berries, and
people are not used to the work.”

In good years, he said, berry pickers
can take home a small fortune.

“Some years,” he added, “there’s a bad
crop; this year was a bad year.”

Local people, while agreeing it was a
bad year, said the workers were not warned adequately of the possibility.

“It’s like gold in the forest, they’re
told, quick money,” said Lars Riberth, pastor of the town church, which has
collected the equivalent of $9,000 to help the men.

“It’s really slavery,” he said.

It was unacceptable, he added, to push
the risk onto the pickers’ shoulders.

Rahman, the student at Uppsala, said:
“Some people made a lot of money, but it’s not the workers.”

“The government must make new
regulations,” he said. “We don’t want this situation next year.”

Thongkam Persson, 57, came to Sweden
from her native Thailand 30 years ago, following a Swedish husband. While she
now runs a Thai restaurant in town, when she was younger she worked five
seasons picking berries.

“It strains your back, and the berries
grow on the mountains, so you’re climbing,” she said.

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