Living in Pathum Thani as a construction worker, Aut, 36, always dreamed of having a big income that could change his life. When he heard from his friends that picking berries in Sweden for just a couple months a year would mean a significant boost to their incomes, he jumped at the chance to travel and earn.
"They said the pay can reach six figures and that would help me clear my debts,'' he said.
Without construction work during the Covid-19 pandemic, he decided to join a group of 61 people, mainly hailing from the Northeast, to be seasonal workers in Sweden from July 13 to Sept 29.
"Everyone had to pay 12,000 baht up front and another lump sum payment to the agent to facilitate our journey. For those who did not have the money like me, we signed a contract with the company for a loan of 130,000 baht,'' he said.
The sum was for air tickets, visa fees, accident and health insurance, car rental and interest on the loan, although they still had to bear personal expenses including food, accommodation and fuel costs.
Before leaving Thailand, he was certain he would earn more than the money he borrowed.
In Sweden, he said he and his team worked 14-20 hours a day, starting at 3am amid low temperatures of just 2-3 degrees Celsius, and often until 9-10pm in the hope of maximising their hours and earnings.
But this year's bumper harvest saw them miss their targets all too often.
His contract, he told the Bangkok Post, had clearly stipulated a minimum wage of about 80,000 baht a month even in the event of a poor berry supply.
But after finishing the job and returning home, he found he did not receive the expected deposit into his account for his labour. To make the matter worse, the company that hired him sent him a letter saying he now owed them 20,000 baht for their service.
Only on paper
According to the Swedish Municipal Workers' Union, Thai companies, acting as project coordinators or agents, or Finnish companies that want to import Thai workers as berry pickers must guarantee a minimum income for Thai workers of at least 23,183 Swedish krona or 81,372 baht in this seasonal year.
As of June, the Department of Employment under the Labour Ministry in Thailand also issued 16 travel measures for Thai berry pickers saying that the company that hires them must provide travel, accidental and health insurance with a minimum amount of 2-million-baht coverage per Thai worker as well as other welfare.
Pramkan Chanchuen, a 37-year-old berry picker, said he had injured his right leg twice on the job but received neither medical care nor pay during his recovery.
"The company denied paying me my wage and said the contract was created just to comply with state procedures,'' he said.
Jittra Cotchadet, a labour activist and a coordinator of workers' cooperatives in Sweden, said many Thai berry pickers with similar stories have asked her for help so she began collaborating with the Royal Thai Embassy in Sweden to provide assistance.
"It is important to have an employment contract in both Thai and English to guarantee they understand their rights and the minimum income they may earn so that they will not be in debt after their return,'' she said, adding that the Labour Ministry must ensure fair payment and must protect the rights of Thai workers.
Each year more than 100 Thai workers ask the embassy for help, said a lawyer who asked not to be named. He said employment laws mandating a 40-hour working week exist only on paper. The earnings guarantee of around 80,000 baht a month also lacked credibility and was used to justify the large fees charged by brokers, he said. The matter highlights an overall ignorance of labour protection rights, he said, and domestic and international agencies must work together to deal with the problems.
The root of the problem
Department of Employment Director-General Piroj Chotikasatien will meet Thai companies that send Thai berry pickers to Sweden and Finland today to find a solution for their labour exploitation and forced labour problems.
According to the ministry, from July to September 2020, about 3,200 Thais picked berries in Sweden and 2,014 Thais flew to Finland; the number rose again in 2021 to 5,200 and 3,000 respectively.
Labour rights activist Junya Yimprasert, who played a key role in helping Thai berry pickers in 2009, said the beginning of recruitment efforts to find Thai workers to pick berries in Scandinavia, particularly the northern region of Sweden and Finland, came from Thai people who lived there.
''It started as a hobby enjoyed by Thai women who married locals. They invited their relatives to come during the berry harvesting seasons to pick fruit for a couple of months,'' she said. The earnings were high and when the relatives returned home, they wanted to come back another year. Through word of mouth, more people wanted to try their luck. Berry picking became something of a dream job for those who wanted to earn good money as well as work in a foreign country, she said.
Some of those Thai people in Sweden also act as agents but instead of helping their fellow countrymen, take the chance to exploit them with low payments, she said. The responsibility then falls on the Labour Ministry to ensure all Thai workers understand their rights and have access to labour welfare, she said.
"The ministry must solve the matter from the root to branch, so to speak,'' she said.