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Finland enhances protection for foreign berry pickers

by Juhani Niinisto

HELSINKI, July 8 (Xinhua) -- Asian berry pickers recruited to roam in the forests in Finland are getting more public assistance now against exploitation by berry buyers, after the media gave attention to the plight of some Thai pickers last year.

Each picker now gets a background brochure when receiving visa at a Finnish diplomatic mission.

Senior government councilor Olli Sorainen from the Finnish Ministry of Employment and Economy told Xinhua that a civil servant has been placed at the disposal of berry pickers for assistance in the main picking area.

However, the crucial problem remains as to whether foreign pickers should be regarded as being employed in Finland or as entrepreneurs.

A government rapporteur concluded recently that the pickers should be employees.

If considered as an employee, a picker gets the full protection of Finnish labor laws, including the salary guarantee.

Industries that purchase berries from the foreign pickers are opposed to the idea of employment and believe the berry business could not survive in those conditions.

Many of the pickers in Finland come from Thailand. In the current system, pickers recruited in Thailand often have to pay Thai intermediaries for the job.

The income that the pickers gain from berries in Finland is low, sometimes even less than the cost of traveling. If considered employed in Finland, the foreign pickers would not run a risk of not getting their income, but the risk would be with the employer.

In Finland, land owners cannot restrict others' access to their forests except in the immediate vicinity of residencies. This right of common access is available both to Finnish citizens and foreigners and thus makes berry picking by foreigners legal.

The number of pickers coming from Thailand this year is around 3000, some 1000 less than last year. The Finnish Embassy in Bangkok has imposed restrictions on invitations extension by some companies if their activities have shown negative aspects.

Besides Thailand, another main source of pickers is Ukraine.

People from within the European Union could come to Finland to work without visas.

However, Sorainen believed the level of compensation is so low that travel to Finland for berry picking is not worthwhile even from low-income EU countries such as Bulgaria and Romania.

Sorainen said that his ministry endorses the concept of employment for berry pickers in Finland, but there is no timetable for any further measures.

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