Fresh organic wild ripe blueberries on the bush with green leaves in the woods in summer, close up

Berry company owner worried about new restrictions on Thais

Some berry companies have already left the sector because of a lack of clarity about employment terms.

Berry company owner Riina Jussila from Mäntyharju still does not know what proportion of wild berries will go unpicked this summer.

“Many companies won’t hire pickers this year,” she says.

The situation does not only affect Jussila’s berry business, but also the future of larger companies in the berry sector.

In previous years, Jussila hired dozens of pickers from Thailand. She is now unsure whether she will get any.

The cause is a change in visa rules which requires companies to give berry pickers employment contracts. In addition, foreign berry pickers need work permits. They are not eligible for a summer work visa, as wild berry pickers are not listed in the current seasonal work decree. Work visas are the responsibility of the Finnish Immigration Service (FIS), which is suffering from severe backlogs. Berry companies are under pressure to get work permits for their pickers before the picking season starts.

“All in all, the process of getting a worker to Finland takes at least two months. So even though you get a worker, they might not get here to pick berries in time. By August, the bilberry season is over and the berries in the forest are of poor quality,” Riina Jussila says. She thinks that the government should have issued its instructions at the start of the year.

“If a picker only gets to work for a month, they aren’t left with anything, because they have to pay for their own flights and the visa costs over €500,” Jussila says.

“Everyone knows best for themselves”

In future, berry pickers will work for limited hours. Unconfirmed reports say they will be limited to a maximum of around eight hours per day. Jussila does not think that the working hour limitation is in the berry pickers’ interests.

“Many of them are wondering whether they should ever come to Finland to pick berries again. If a worker can’t work more than eight hours a day and they are forced to take Sundays off, that’s a big hit to their income.”

The pickers that Jussila has used in previous summers decided on their working hours and days off by themselves.

“I don’t force them to do anything. Everyone knows best for themselves if they want to go and pick berries. Sometimes, some of them take a day off for laundry or pick mushrooms for their personal use. Everyone was happy.”

Whereas a berry picker could in previous summers earn €5,000–€6,000 after expenses, Jussila says that on employment contracts those incomes could drop below €2,000.

“If my company can sell the berries that I buy from them for 30c per kilo and I have to pay pension contributions and other expenses, the business isn’t profitable any longer.”

Collective bargaining agreement still unclear

Birgitta Partanen, the Executive Director of the berry-sector business association Arktiset Aromit, feels uninformed about the situation.

“Things are still up in the air. The process isn’t working, and conversations with the FIS are either sluggish or non-existent.”

Partanen says that negotiations on employment contracts would continue in the last week of May. The parties to the negotiations are the Federation of Agricultural Employers and the Industrial Union. Companies in the sector have been consulted during the negotiations.

“Companies are being made to provide jobs without any information about the kind of collective bargaining agreement they’ll use. The key issue is how berry pickers’ working hours will be defined. In addition, travel to the berry stands and monitoring of working hours still need to be clarified.

In future, berry pickers will not be allowed to pick berries in their free time or sell them to their employer. They will not be allowed to use the company’s equipment outside working hours. Otherwise, the work will be considered overtime.

Partanen agrees with Jussila that limited working hours are problematic, potential flexibility notwithstanding.

“What could easily happen is that the pickers cannot earn enough or pick as many berries as they want. They come to Finland to make money.”

The sector is worried that the new regulations will soon be reflected in the berry companies’ operations. Partanen points out that reduced numbers of wild berry pickers will also have an effect on many companies which further process berries.

“At no stage has any comprehensive evaluation been done. Some companies have already closed down. That means fewer tax incomes and jobs. Companies face so many additional costs, but they can’t raise their prices enough to cover those costs.”

“All companies are tarred with the same brush”

A substantial human trafficking lawsuit involving berry companies began in Lapland District Court in May. The CEO of the berry company Kiantama is accused of 56 counts of gross human trafficking.

Riina Jussila does not accept the labelling of dozens of small berry companies due to infractions by individual companies.

“This human trafficking case means all companies are tarred with the same brush. The authorities don’t care that I look after my affairs well and that my pickers are happy. The errors of a small group cause problems for a large number of companies. That’s wrong.”

The sector’s challenges are worsened by the unavailability of Finnish pickers, in spite of efforts. Jussila has offered jobs to dozens of Finnish pickers through the labour exchange.

“Not a single Finn applied. The only option is for me to pick the berries myself this summer and sell them in the market.”

Jussila knows of at least a hundred willing pickers in Thailand who would be ready to fly to Finland. They are also waiting for information about the collective bargaining agreement.

“Some might come, but they probably won’t be happy about the restrictions. The government should take the pickers’ needs into account too.”

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Pauli Reinikainen