Modern Human Trafficking: Thai farmers are lured to Sweden to work endlessly for starvation wages and high debts

Thai farmer complains about her ruthless exploitation in Sweden

Currently, more than 6,000 seasonal employees from Thailand are working in Sweden picking berries. And a new study reveals that they are brutally taken advantage of.

Thai men and women take flights to Sweden every summer to pick berries in the forests from early in the morning until late at night. The Swedish wild blueberry industry was inhumane from the beginning, at least for the Asian workers who were (mis)used by it. Recently, a team from the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter visited Thailand and generated controversy. They looked into 14 employment agencies involved with hiring Thai workers on behalf of Swedish farms. They also encountered 77 former employees who had traveled to Sweden last year.

I have nothing left in my life,” one farmer told Swedish journalists. She had hoped to pay off her debts in Thailand with work in Sweden. But instead they have grown.

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The workers are made to believe they are “privileged” because they are allowed to pick berries in Sweden.

The illusory prospect of additional income

The workers usually are seasonal workers from Thailand’s poorer regions. Often farmers themselves, they had planted their rice when the wild berries were ripening in Sweden – and therefore had nothing to do at home. The summer job in Sweden offered them the opportunity to supplement their household budget, to finance renovations to the hut or to provide children with an education.

But when they signed the work contracts under time and competition pressure in long queues and only at the airport in Bangkok or went into debt to pay for the flight to Stockholm, many of them did not know exactly what to expect.

Some had to pick at least 4,000 kilograms of berries to receive any wages at all. And those who received wages were paid according to the amount of berries picked. Those who fell ill and therefore did not pick berries for three consecutive days had to return home at their own expense and without pay.

Seasonal workers are the only ones exposed to risks

In addition, the pickers had to pay an average of 41,000 Swedish kronor (about 4,000 US Dollars) in advance to work in Sweden for two and a half months. The money was charged to them for flights, administration, accommodation and food.

A 40-year-old farmer picked six tons of berries last year, earning 13,000 kronor (1,270 US Dollars) after all deductions. The pickers had expected to earn around 30,000 kroner (about 4,000 USD) in the two and a half months after all deductions. But many worked up to 18 hours a day and earned a fraction of that.

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Sweden is the debt trap for Thai farm workers.

Dagens Nyheter met 36 workers who were all employed by the same Thai company. Their wages before returning home: 500 kroner – 48 USD. They all went into debt.

Deception through double employment contracts

The illegal trick of Thai recruitment companies: double employment contracts. One contract is submitted to the Swedish migration authorities. It states a guaranteed wage, health insurance, legal working hours. The other – a gag contract – regulates the employment relationship.

Swedish berry trading companies buy the picked berries and resell them to retailers. They turn over millions and pretend to be ignorant. The head of one company does think the pickers should earn more. But he also blames the retail trade. Their prices are simply too low.

Complicity of the authorities

The Swedish authorities have actually been aware of these conditions for a long time. In 2019, a government report admitted that almost half of seasonal workers did not receive the guaranteed minimum wage.

And the Migration Board does not control the berry industry, at least not sufficiently, and blames politics when confronted. A glimmer of hope for Thai slave laborers comes from Equality Minister Paulina Brandberg, who herself has worked as a law enforcement officer and led preliminary investigations into human trafficking in the berry industry and considers the scandal slavery.