Are Sweden’s berry pickers actually slaves?

Are migrant berry pickers forced labourers? Their situation actually meets several of the criteria in international conventions on forced labour claims REMESO researcher Charles Woolfson and his colleagues, who have also criticised Swedish legislation in that it is ineffective.

Berry pickers from Asia and Eastern Europe who are brought to the Swedish forests each year may be subjected to forced labour. Charles Woolfson is a researcher at REMESO – The Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society.

In conjunction with two colleagues, Woolfson has reviewed the events of the summer of 2010, when 4,000 Asian berry pickers came to Sweden on a contract that guaranteed them a fixed salary and working conditions in accordance with existing collective agreements.

However companies such as Lomsjö Bär often broke these promises by simply withholding money from their employees. In September it became apparent that the company’s owners had emptied its accounts and disappeared.

Kommunal, the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union, which signs agreements for this segment of the Swedish labour market, can only act if it has members at the workplace. They managed to recruit two Thais who had already travelled back to Thailand before the legal process began.

Yet thanks to Kommunal’s actions, the berry pickers were eventually offered some compensation via the Swedish wage guarantee system.

Woolfson et al have reviewed the criteria that are typical of forced labour according to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) definition. Threats of punishment and workers not offering their services voluntarily are two of these criteria. Refusing to pay wages and threatening to hand workers over to the police can be characterised as threats of punishment, the researchers assert.

They associate the issue of voluntarism with the information that the pickers received in their native countries when they were recruited. If the working conditions that they accepted voluntarily are not consistent with the real conditions, then the question arises of how unforced the agreement becomes.

Sweden has ratified both the ILO convention No. 29 on forced labour and the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights, which forbids slavery, servitude and forced labour.

“However Swedish laws and institutions are not equipped for events like these,” says Woolfson.

“Sweden is watchful of trafficking but has been less alert when it comes to forced labour. The legislation is unclear and there is a lack of guiding precedents. I think that people simply never predicted that anything like forced labour could take place in Sweden. What happened to the berry pickers was a genuine surprise to many, a shock. One common reaction was to ask ‘can this really happen in Sweden?”

The famous Swedish model is relatively ineffective when faced with the new globalised labour market that is emerging, claims Woolfson.

“It is based on two strong and well-organised parties that negotiate on a relatively unregulated labour market, and who honour agreements entered into with honest intentions.

One consequence of this, as in the case of the berry pickers, is that it is a trade union that must act to administer justice, not a state authority.

Nor is there a statutory minimum wage in Sweden. Wage rates are a matter primarily for the labour market actors. However the Swedish model is difficult to apply when one of the actors, as was the case with the berry pickers, is obviously much weaker, and when the employer does not honour the agreements they entered into.
The Swedish model risks coming apart due to:

  • weakened trade unions
  • declining membership
  • workers from many different countries
  • employers disregarding agreements
  • less of an influence on the influx of foreign labour

Sweden also lacks an authority that inspects workplaces for agreements on wages and other terms of employment. As its name suggests, our only inspection authority, the Swedish Work Environment Authority (SWEA), focuses on inspecting the working environment.

“Unlike many of its European counterparts, SWEA lacks the mandate to review the setting of wage rates,” says Woolfson, who thinks that Sweden should establish a much stronger labour market inspection body.

SWEA has also been considerably weakened. Between 2006 and 2009 its budget was cut by a third. The number of employees was also reduced drastically; for example, the numbers of experts and inspectors were almost halved, from 430 to 260.

“The traditional Swedish way of protecting decent working conditions runs into significant obstacles when it comes to migrant seasonal workers,” the researchers write, and argue that the problems have increased with the new law in 2008 on workforce migration. Today a job offer from an employer in Sweden is enough to get a work permit. This, the researchers write, has opened the door to a more exploitative labour market.

However, more stringent requirements slowed the influx of berry pickers from countries outside the EU in 2011. Instead the forests were filled with berry pickers from EU countries in central and Eastern Europe, for whom no work permits are necessary, and once again there were complaints about non-payment of wages and inhuman work demands.

The original article was featured in a report from the Council of Baltic Sea States Task Force on Trafficking. It has also been published in the current issue of the International Journal of Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations. The co-authors are Petra Herzfeld Olsson, law researcher, Uppsala University, and REMESO researcher Christer Thörnqvist.

Article (PDF): Forced Labour in Sweden? The Case of Migrant Berry Pickers. A Report to the Council of Baltic Sea States Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings: Forced Labour Exploitation and Counter Trafficking in the Baltic Sea Region., by Charles Woolfson, Christer Thörnqvist, Petra Herzfeld Olsson.


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