The media have reported actions by workers, who are primarily from East Asia.

The image of migrant workers freezing, living in squalor or demanding better pay and conditions is not typical in Sweden.

Yet these are among the cases involving Asian workers who are spending the season picking wild berries in the forests of central and northern Sweden.

They are occurring, union officials and aid workers say, mainly because collective bargaining rules are proving difficult to enforce and because of what appears to be exploitation by employment agencies based in Asia. The Swedish government is monitoring the situation and says it may adapt its rules, which were recently put in place.

In some cases, humanitarian agencies, local authorities and churches have stepped in to help the workers.

Ylva de Val Olsson, a Red Cross coordinator, said her organisation had intervened after discovering in August that 138 pickers from Bangladesh were crammed into four squalid houses in Bracke, in central Sweden. The accommodations lacked functioning toilets and the workers had inadequate clothing, shoes and blankets for night temperatures just above freezing.

“We're used to helping people abroad,” she said. “But it's very seldom that we have an acute situation like this in Sweden.”

Some of the Bangladeshis have gone home, but many remain and want to stay and pick berries to cover their debts. “They thought they would get a lifetime's income, but it's the opposite,” she said. “It's sad.”

The Swedish media has reported actions by workers, including strikes and sit-ins by Vietnamese and Chinese pickers. In one case, Vietnamese pickers locked up and reportedly assaulted their team leaders in a school, while 100 Chinese workers staged a nine-mile overnight march to protest salaries and conditions. Vietnamese berry pickers elsewhere in Sweden were reportedly shooting birds with catapults for food.

Laws giving the public a right of access allow people to roam forests gathering wild berries with few limits. But the practice has evolved from a bucolic pastime into big business.

Used in medicines, cosmetics

Wild berries are especially rich in vitamins and prized by food retailers, and by pharmaceutical companies for their antioxidant qualities. Their pigments can be used for colouring cosmetics, pharmaceutical syrups and nutritional supplements.

In Sweden and neighbouring Finland, over 30,000 tons are gathered each season, according to Polarica, the largest producer there. The most important are cloudberries, gathered in late July; blueberries, in August; and lingonberries, in September. Large quantities are also gathered in Poland, the Baltic states, Russia and Belarus.

And much like fruit-picking in France and Spain, low wages and tough conditions — in this case crouching and tramping through damp, mosquito-infested forests — dissuade native workers.

In Sweden, the labour has primarily come from East Asian countries. In Finland, migrant Ukrainians have found themselves in similarly precarious situations in recent years.

Officially, there are about 4,000 Asian workers in Sweden with permits this year. But the real number is higher, because many enter on tourist visas. Last year, official numbers were several thousand higher, though a poor harvest may have deterred some.

After pressure from unions and public unease, the government has acted. In March, the Migration Board said that it would start handling permit applications for pickers in the same way as for other work permit applications for people who are not citizens in the European Union. The head of the board's work permit unit, Alejandro Firpo, said his agency issued permits of varying duration but had a very limited authority to follow up on abuses, which was a matter for unions, employers and workers.

At the same time, the Swedish Municipal Workers Union, Kommunal, has won the right to organise and establish collective agreements for pickers. These include a monthly minimum wage of 16,372 kronor, or about $2,240, for pickers employed by companies operating in Sweden and slightly more for those employed by staff agencies abroad.

Hans Kotzan, Kommunal's international secretary, said the problems appeared to be continuing because many pickers were still not covered by the agreements. Kommunal has deals with about 15 to 20 major companies, but Kotzan said “the lack of agreements” across the sector was “lowering standards.”

Where the pickers are not covered, the union cannot intervene. That appears to be the case for many of those recruited by agencies in Asia.

Kommunal says it is trying to work with regional and global union federations representing food workers to establish better supervision.

“Somebody has to pay a price for the cheap berries,” Kotzan said. “Unfortunately it's the labourers.” — © New York Times News Service

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