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How do you stop the exploitation of foreign labour?

How do you stop the exploitation of foreign labour?

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Cata Portin

There have always been groups of foreign workers in the Nordic labour markets who are hard to define. Are they coming to work, study or as a cultural exchange? They might be au pairs, interns or berry pickers.

Rules vary between the countries but a common trend is that those who get residency permits are coming from increasingly distant places outside of Europe. As you can read in another story in this issue, foreign apprentices on Danish farms from Vietnam, Uganda and India are increasingly treated as cheap labour and not given the education they are there for. They also have to spend a large part of their wages on paying recruitment companies.

No more au pairs in Norway

When the Norwegian government decided to phase out the au pair system from 15 March this year, nearly all the au pairs were from the Phillippines. Those who are already in the country have been given two years to return to their home countries.

“The time when the au pair system was cultural exchange is over. We must dare call it what it is: underpaid labour,” said Per Vidar Kjølmoen from the Labour Party during the parliamentary debate leading up to the decision.

There have been debates about au pairs in the other Nordic countries too, but so far, no other country has signalled it will follow Norway’s example.

All of the countries have different types of seasonal work where the rules for shorter-term permits to stay are more lax. There are strawberry pickers in Norway, tourism workers in Iceland and in Finland and Sweden there are blueberry pickers from Thailand. 

Came as tourists

As early as in the 1980s, many berry pickers arrived on tourism visas to Sweden from Poland. After 1991, workers from the newly independent Baltic states also began arriving. After the EU’s 2004 eastward expansion, other more lucrative options opened up for the workforce from Eastern Europe. That is when pickers began to be recruited from Thailand and India.

From the start, there were critical articles about severe exploitation of Thai workers. Swedwatch published a report in 2011 called “Mother’s little Olle. How Asian berry pickers are exploited in Swedish forests”.

The process was described like this:

“Over the past decade, thousands of Asian berry pickers have arrived in Sweden to pick blueberries. Time and time again they have been tricked. When the season is over, most have had to return to Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh and China with more debt than what they had when they arrived here. 

“The berry pickers have not been paid according to the law. In some cases, they have not been paid at all. They have worked from early morning to late at night, six days a week. They have often been forced to live in accommodation with poor sanitary conditions and few toilets.”

13 years later, the Expressen tabloid wrote on 11 May:

“Thai berry pickers were promised pay, good working conditions, housing and food at the couple’s berry farm in Västerbotten. Instead, they are telling stories about being forced to work seven days a week, sometimes more than 15 hours every day, and about eating dead animals in the forest to get enough food."

Time stands still

Although time seems to stand still in the blueberry forest, changes are afoot. Berry pickers now make up one-third of all labour immigration to Sweden. 

The Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs stopped giving visas for pickers from Thailand in March this year. From 2025, only pickers who already have a job contract will be able to come to Finland. 

According to an investigation made before that decision was made, the employment contracts secure pickers employment benefits and a guaranteed minimum wage. The change does not, however, mean incomes will increase for all of the berry pickers. It also does not help them with debts they run up in their home countries to cover travel expenses.

Sweden introduced employment requirements already in 2008. Berry pickers are hired by a Thai recruitment agency which again has an agreement with a Swedish contractor. If the latter repeatedly breaks the rules, the Migration Agency can deny work permits – but this hardly ever happens. 

Several other changes have been introduced since 2008, but it is difficult to address the issue of dual contracts – when pickers have a formal, collective agreement-based wage on paper, but in practical terms get paid per kilo.

The foreign pickers must also be protected against hidden costs that are subtracted from their pay.

Similar problems in other sectors

Many of the problems faced by the berry pickers are mirrored in other sectors. The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority has tightened the rules on the housing of workers. From 1 June 2024, regulations will be clarified. It leaves less room for interpretation and employers should find it easier to follow the rules.

The requirements include:

  • One person per bedroom
  • Access to shower and toilet in the immediate vicinity of the bedroom
  • At least one shower and toilet per five employees
  • Access to a living room with a table and chairs
  • Wireless internet

In Denmark, nine of the parliamentary parties have signed an agreement against social dumping. It gives the Danish Working Environment Authority the opportunity to stop operators that repeatedly break the rules, enhanced opportunities to control living quarters hired out by employers to workers and to strengthen measures against the use of illegal labour in Danish workplaces. 

“We have seen clear examples of foreign colleagues who are forced to live in containers and in horrible conditions. We cannot tolerate this. It is high time to impose some accommodation requirements,” says Morten Skov Christiansen, President of the Danish Trade Union Confederation FH. 

A Thai berry picker

in the forests of Finland. This year, Finland has decided to stop issuing tourist visas to berry pickers from Thailand. From next year they must have a work contract, which authorities hope will reduce the exploitation of workers.


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