Berry pickers on two levels

16.7.2012 6.03
News item N5-60907

"The situation of foreign berry pickers in Finland depends on whether they pick red berries in a field or yellow berries in a marsh," says Markus Pyykkönen, Head of Development specializing in occupational safety in agriculture at the MSAH. Those working for a market-garden do so under work contracts, while wild berry pickers are treated as entrepreneurs.

Pyykkönen says that the situation is problematic. "Those coming to work for growers know that even in a bad year they will receive a basic wage. Wild berry pickers, on the other hand, can't be sure of being paid anything. If the harvest is bad, they will be left in a very difficult position."

Seasonal work in Finland picking both wild and cultivated berries has increased dramatically since the 1990s as the market for berries, mainly used for jams, has grown. But when it comes to labour rights and practices pickers may find themselves in wholly different situations.

Seasonal labour boom

Before the 1980s berry picking on farms was a common source of summertime earnings for young people in Finland, but this arduous type of work gradually lost its appeal. During the decade the market for strawberries expanded and strawberry cultivation grew. With the expansion of strawberry growing, to meet rising demand, the need for seasonal workers also increased, and growers began to look beyond Finland for ready sources of labour.

Initially, most foreign strawberry pickers came from Estonia, and a little later from Russia. Finland's membership of the EU, since 1995, and the elimination of customs duties within the single market, meant that growers could more readily export their berries. The industry grew, demand continued to increase, and as more people, particularly in Eastern Europe were in search of work, the influx of seasonal labour to Finland rose. "Today, they mainly come from Ukraine and Belarus," says Pyykkönen.

The recruitment of foreign workers to pick wild berries is a more recent phenomenon, but one that also meshes with the rise in demand for berries. Finland, like Sweden and northwest Russia, has a long tradition of collecting the fruits of nature and forests, not only berries but also mushrooms.

Popular tradition

The most popular berries are blueberries, lingonberries, cranberries, cloudberries. Berry picking in Finland is a strong part of traditional popular culture, done mainly for home consumption or for small scale selling at local produce markets.

In Finland, people have open access to forests and other parts of the countryside. This is according to the non-statutory but commonly recognized right of 'freedom to roam' for exercise and recreation on public and private land, though not in gardens or close to people's homes, and it includes the right to pick berries and mushrooms.

Nowadays both the cultivated and wild berry industry is such that that it is significant in macroeconomic terms. Most foreign wild berry pickers come from Thailand. This summer, growers are employing about 15 000 pickers, while some 4000 pickers will be  employed to gather wild berries.

"Without foreigners berry processing plants in Finland would grind to a halt. The supply of labour domestically is very small scale," says Pyykkönen.

Varying security

Seasonal workers picking cultivated berries have a reasonable degree of security by virtue of having work contracts. Employers also have an interest in taking care of their employees to make sure that they return the following year. But of course sometimes there are problems.

"For instance, under the terms of their contracts, piece workers as not paid overtime for working on Sundays, which is something that is not always clear to employees. Employers, on the other hand, do not always understand that piece work requires time sheets, or that it is a good idea to make contracts in writing."

Occasionally, there is outright fraud in the berry picking sector. Nearly every year there is a case of a group of workers having to get their pay through the system of state income support. Wild berry pickers enjoy no such benefits.

"They are treated as entrepreneurs, who have a far worse safety net to support them," says Pyykkönen. "Wild berry pickers are in practice wholly dependent on middlemen, who handle their travel arrangements and direct them to the collection sites. The pickers are unable to compete for buyers.

Problems with regulation

Extending employment regulations to cover wild berry pickers has been discussed by a number of working committees, but the issue is difficult to resolve. The right to roam was not seen as something that was meant to generate employment or be used as an intensively commercial activity subject to tax legislation, which is what extending labour legislation to cover berry picking would entail.

"The rural population in Finland would be deprived of a significant gain," says Pyykkönen. "And the issue of tax is not the only reason to be hesitant on the matter. There are examples that indicate that the extension of work contractual obligations may lead to a black market in wild berry picking"

"Legislators always have to consider what sort of side effects a reform may entail. These cannot always be anticipated. In the long run, though,we have to come up with a solution. It is not fair that a picker can be left owing the middleman when it's been a bad year for wild berries."

Paula Mannonen and Mark Waller