Foreign berry pickers take industrial action
Concern is mounting over the poor pay and conditions for foreign workers picking berries in Sweden. The mainly Asian workers come to Sweden believing they can make a decent living, but travel and living costs leave some workers in debt, even after months of work. Social partners have made efforts to resolve the situation, but the issue has caused public unrest both in Sweden and abroad. There have been several incidences of industrial action and few workers are happy with the situation.
The number of berry pickers in Sweden is difficult to estimate, but is likely to be around 6,000 workers, mainly from East Asian and Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and China. The fact that they are sometimes recruited by foreign agencies makes the monitoring of their working conditions all the more difficult.
The agencies recruit the workers for the harvest between July and September of each year. Although the workers typically have to pay for travel, accommodation costs and food, they often believe they can earn decent pay. However, the high costs of travelling to Sweden, combined with the on-site expenses, leave some workers in debt even after months of work. The poor working conditions have resulted in some conspicuous industrial action, including a lock-in of an employer (for which the Vietnamese workers involved will have to face court), a 15-kilometre protest march by Chinese workers, and wildcat strikes. In one case the local Red Cross association stepped in to help cold and hungry workers. The unrest and discovery of dismal working conditions, unusual for Sweden, received widespread international media coverage.
Social partners’ efforts
Despite the recent attention drawn to the issue, the fact that foreign workers picking berries face harsh working conditions is hardly news. However, apportioning responsibility for the situation has been quite a long process. In a legal sense, the Swedish Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket) has the mandate to monitor working conditions for all workers in Sweden. But the social partners have a big responsibility for the labour market in Sweden and the trade unions especially are engaged in improving working conditions, through collective agreements with the employers and by naming and shaming those who behave badly.
When the issues faced by berry pickers arose a few years ago, it was unclear which trade union should represent the workers. It is very rare for foreign workers to belong to a Swedish trade union. It was agreed in 2009 within the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) that the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union (Kommunal) should represent foreign berry pickers. This means the workers will be covered by a collective agreement that stipulates a contractual monthly wage of SEK 17,730 (about €1,930 as at 1 October 2010). However, this may still be too low because the cost of flights, visa, accommodation, food, car rental and so on makes it difficult for workers to end up with a profit after the relatively short berry-picking season.
According to an article (in Swedish) by LO, some employers also use double contracts with the workers; one where they get a contractual wage, and another where they agree on a lower wage. This second agreement is not valid and is in breach of the collective agreement, but many workers are unaware of this.
Although Kommunal has intensified its efforts to sign an agreement with employers, it has had relatively little success in recruiting members among the foreign workers and this makes it difficult for the union to represent their interests.
Part of the problem is that there is a mismatch between workers’ expectations and outcome, as the workers are often promised substantial incomes for travelling to Sweden. They are then expected to pick around 60 kilograms of berries in the forests per day, which can be difficult during poor seasons.
The issue was already high on the agenda at the end of summer 2009, and a solution was sought then by the social partners. This year’s summer has shown, however, that more comprehensive solutions have to be found, as it really is a ‘lose-lose’ situation for everyone involved. The workers are in financial difficulty, Sweden’s reputation is severely damaged and the demand for berries may decrease, putting the companies at risk. In practice, it is the workers who pay the price for the cheap supply of berries while, according to a Swedish newspaper article (in Swedish), many companies end up with hefty profits. A sustainable solution must be put on the table, and the social partners have a big responsibility to move the issue forward.
Mats Kullander, Oxford Research