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Did Finland do enough to protect its foreign berry pickers from COVID?

·10-min read

Regardless of good intentions and preparations, this year’s wild berry season in Finland has been anything but safe and calm.

Tests and quarantine systems were supposed to stop the coronavirus from spreading from one berry picker to others.

But something went wrong, and more than 400 Thai pickers -- brought into Finland for the season -- were found to have COVID-19.

Now, Finnish health authorities, berry firms and Thailand’s Embassy in Finland are trying to get to the bottom of this issue: How could this happen, who is to blame and how could similar situations be prevented?

Tax-free gifts from nature

From July to September, the country’s many forests and mires are rich with berries that can only be found in the wild. Particularly cloudberries, lingonberries, and bilberries -- also known as wild blueberries -- are highly appreciated raw or processed into jams, juices or other products.

During the pandemic, many Finns rediscovered the joys of gathering their own food in nature. The freedom to roam - or “everyman’s right” - gives anyone in the Nordic country the right to gather berries and mushrooms and to sell them tax-free.

Nevertheless, it is estimated that fewer than 10 per cent of Finland’s approximate 500 million kg of wild berries are gathered for human consumption. Only about one-fourth of these are picked by Finns, according to statistics from the Finnish Food Authority.

So to match the growing demand for the flavourful and nutrition-packed wild berries, the companies that trade them invite pickers from Thailand to help with the harvest. Since 2005, Thailand has allowed thousands of its citizens to travel to Finland each year to gather berries and mushrooms from the floors of Finland's forest.

Last summer, no berry pickers from Thailand tested positive for COVID-19 during their stay in Finland. So this year, Thai authorities allowed up to 3,500 citizens to go to Finland to help with the harvest.

One of them is Choetchai La-ongchai, a 47-year-old farmer, who sells his berries to the firm Polarica.

“During the rainy season, I have no work at home, so it is really good that I can come to Finland to make money to support my family and my children’s education,” he explained on the phone from a forest in Lapland, during a break from picking bilberries.

The working day of a berry picker is long: Choetchai and his peers typically wake up at 4.30 am to pack their lunchboxes and drive with a minibus to the forest. They do not get back to the former school that acts as their camp before eight or nine in the evening.

Nevertheless, he has been coming back every year for the past 13 years.

“The work is not too hard, it is normal for me. I’d call it comfortable, especially in the autumn when the mosquitos are gone.”

Earns more in two months than the rest of the year

Last year, Finnish and foreign pickers earned €19 million from wild berries, according to official statistics.

Data also shows that during the last 10 years, bilberries have typically been sold to wholesale firms at a price of €1.50 - 2.50 per kg. On a good day, Choetchai La-ongchai picks 110 kg. of bilberries, meaning a tax-free income of about €220.

The red and sour lingonberries pay a little less per kg, while the golden cloudberries are the most valuable, paying up to €13 per kg.

Choetchai came to Lapland in the middle of July to pick cloudberries. Then it was the bilberries’ turn, and before he leaves, he also helps with the lingonberry harvest. As the pickers are not employees, they are free to make their own schedules.

“I intend to make money, so I don’t take weekends off,” the 47-year-old said.

By the end of September, when he flies back to his wife and two sons, he will have earned around €4,000 net.

“This is very important for my economy. In two months, I can earn more than in a whole year in Thailand,” Choetchai said.

COVID-19 spread fast among berry pickers

Choetchai did not get COVID. But many of his co-pickers did.

“I feel sad for them. They lose valuable time to make money,” he said. He washes and disinfects his hands, wears a mask, uses gloves when tanking up, and has others do his shopping for him; all in order to not get sick and lose income.

In addition to Polarica, about seven other firms had infected pickers, with a total of more than 400 Thai berry pickers found having COVID-19 in Finland.

“Our pickers were not in contact with the first pickers that were tested positive,” said Jukka Kristo, CEO at Polarica, who assured that infected persons were isolated right away.

Nevertheless, around 120 pickers out of Polarica’s 1,500 ended up being infected.

“They were all tested in Thailand and were isolated in an airport hotel until their departure. Then they were tested again in the airport in Helsinki, and at the camp,” said Kristo, who thought the pickers had been infected in Thailand.

“It is extremely frustrating,” he expressed.

Janne Naapanki, CEO at Arctic International, another wholesale retailer of wild berries and mushrooms, said everything had been handled according to guidelines from the health authorities.

“They sleep together in big rooms, but when the tests came back positive, we isolated and quarantined everybody as we were supposed to,” he said, adding that they only had mild symptoms and nobody needed hospital care.

“They are all in good shape now.”

Grey area with room for abuse

Ironically, the COVID outbreak among berry pickers came the same year as a new law that was supposed to protect them.

In neighbouring Sweden, foreign gatherers of natural foods are considered employees, protected by the same legislation as other workers. In the eyes of Finnish law, berry pickers are private persons, using their “everyman’s right” to gather the food that forests and wetlands offer.

However, when firms bring labour to the country, without actually being their employer, no law really protects the labourer from possible abuse.

The first Thai pickers came to Finland 15 years ago, and especially the first years were “pretty wild,” according to Olli Sorainen. Sorainen, a senior ministerial adviser at the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, has worked with this area for years and was also one of the main architects behind the new law.

“Through the years, there have been firms that have taken advantage of the loopholes. We tried to do something about it already in the beginning, but no authorities had the necessary jurisdiction,” he remembered.

A recent case, where a Finnish entrepreneur was found guilty of trafficking 26 Thai citizens, sent shockwaves through the public and the industry. The berry firm owner got a suspended sentence of one year and four months - a sentence that has been appealed at Finland’s highest court.

“The whole industry got an image of being villains, so also the berry entrepreneurs understood that something had to be done,” Sorainen noted, adding that a few years ago Thai authorities would even warn citizens from travelling to Finland in local newspapers.

Under the new rules, only “trustworthy” firms that have paid their taxes and taken care of other societal obligations are allowed to bring foreign pickers to Finland.

“The aim of the new law is to improve the legal position of foreign pickers and to level the competitive field for berry firms,” Sorainen said about the legislation that came into force this spring, just in time for this year’s wild berry season.

Firms that bring gatherers to the country, have to commit to a set of minimum standards regarding accommodation and transport. The expenses that are brought upon the Thai pickers -- for e.g. administration, travelling, and food -- should be reasonable. Before coming to Finland, the pickers should know how much they can expect to earn, and they are free to sell their berries to anyone - not only the company that helps them come there.

“This should motivate the companies to pay and treat the pickers well,” said Sorainen Berry entrepreneurs Jukka Kristo and Janne Naapanki were both satisfied with the new law, securing “a level playing field” in the natural berry business.

“Our future is tied to how happy the Thai people are with their earnings and conditions here in Finland,” Janne Naapanki from Arctic International said. “We will need gatherers in the years to come, so it is important that they feel good and earn well.”

The new law is not a coronavirus law. It is, however, linked to the COVID outbreak among berry pickers, the government official pointed out.

“It obliges the berry firms to offer adequate and appropriate accommodation according to Finnish standards.”

Often, berry pickers stay in old village schools that with their large classrooms work well as accommodation - except during an outbreak of an infectious disease.

“It would be really good if someone would oversee the premises,” Sorainen said, admitting that the authorities have not had the needed resources to check the living conditions in the tens of places around Finland, where berry pickers have been housed.

That is also why a working group has been tasked with coming up with ideas on how to strengthen authority supervision of the camps, where foreign berry pickers stay while in Finland. The deadline is next spring, in time for the berry season 2022.

Understanding what went wrong

Both Kristo and Naapanki maintained that their firms acted according to the guidelines given by the authorities. It seems, however, that not everybody followed all the rules to the letter, and the Thai Embassy in Finland has requested that Finnish authorities look into the matter.

“The Royal Thai Embassy has followed the situation of Thai berry pickers in Finland persistently with the concerned authorities,” the embassy told Euronews in an email.

“In this case, we hope the berry companies and their coordinators will strictly observe and follow the Finnish laws and regulations especially the Act on the legal status of foreigners harvesting natural products, which has been approved by the parliament in April 2021.”

Although a formal investigation may not be launched, different authorities that deal with this area are now going through their procedures and practices. They want to understand how foreign labour could be better protected from mass infections and other dangerous situations in the future.

The issue is not made easier by the fact that the responsibility is shared between several Finnish ministries and regional and local health and labour authorities.

“Our job is to supervise municipal health authorities, and I have had a conversation with them,” explained Sari Kemppainen. She is a senior medical officer at the Regional State Administrative Agency of Finland’s northernmost region, Lapland, where the greatest share of berry pickers was tested positive for COVID.

“Not all information seemed to flow as it was supposed to,” noted infectious disease consultant Antti Väänänen from Lapland Hospital District, another institution involved.

There are some pivotal questions that need to be answered, he said: “Can we be sure that it has been possible to keep people apart on all premises? And has the information flow worked as it should?”

Both Väänänen and Kemppainen stressed that the berry companies are obliged to inform the relevant municipalities before they receive berry pickers. It remains unclear who has neglected this, but not all municipalities knew about all Thai pickers before they went out to work in the wilderness.

Twice a year, the ministry meets with the berry firms and the Thai Embassy to learn from the latest berry season and prepare for the next. When this summer’s last berries and mushrooms have been gathered, they will have a lot to discuss.

“Among other things, we will evaluate which companies are responsible and trustworthy enough to bring pickers from Thailand next year,” Sorainen said.

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