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Sweden’s annual reliance on Thai berry pickers

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Forests in Sweden are full of blueberries, redcurrants and cloud berries growing in the wild, but harvesting and sorting these fruits entail strenuous labour.

For reasons best known to them, Swedes are unwilling to pick these berries and depend on migrant workers from a country over 8,000km away, Thailand.

Thais usually travel to Sweden to work as berry pickers on Nordic berry farms from July to September every year. Every year, some 5,000 berry pickers travel to Sweden to pick wild berries, mainly in the rural areas of the country.

Despite the brief berry-picking season, a berry picker working in Sweden could earn around $4,000 (RM16,800) for slightly less than three months’ work – a sum that is far more than what they can earn in Thailand. But it all depends on the harvest.

Labour costs for berry picking are relatively high in this brief berry-picking season. A berry picker could take slightly less than two months to earn the costs incurred for the trip to Sweden, and the balance of the money is brought back to Thailand.

The costs include fees paid to Thai staffing agencies, accommodation, food and transport to the sites for berry picking. Is it worth the trip for a Thai berry picker to travel all the way to Sweden?

Despite all these costs, the stint in Sweden may still be cost-effective for the average Thai berry picker, who might return to Thailand with savings of $2,000 (RM8,400) from one season in Sweden – if the harvest goes well. For the Thai worker, this is a decent income as it is roughly three times what an average worker in Thailand would earn over the same time. The most diligent berry picker could earn as much as 12 times more than what he or she would make in Thailand.

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Such talk draws Thai workers to Sweden like a magnet.

On the average, Thai workers have travelled to Sweden around seven times, but the most frequent worker has gone over 26 times. They use earnings their earnings to help finance their daily needs, farming investments, housing costs and children’s education.

Obviously, berry picking is not a job that Swedes like to be engaged in, but for the temporary foreign workers, the work might be more lucrative than toiling in the sweltering paddy fields back home. These Thai workers are paid by the kilogram, and anticipate a good harvest to make their labour and stay in Sweden meaningful. Much depends on how much they can collect.

Thai berry pickers go to Sweden, and this arrangement appears to suit both sides: the berry season in Sweden falls at a suitable time in the Thai paddy-growing season. The workers need only spend a relatively brief time away from their families.

Thai employment agencies and Swedish berry companies provide the opportunities for Thai workers to earn this extra income, which comes in handy to supplement their children’s future needs.

Some experienced berry pickers use their own social networks to travel to Sweden, by starting a cooperative. In this way, costs are reduced.

Like other foreign workers, Thai berry pickers who arrive in Sweden to work pay their taxes to the Swedish government.

But a new special income tax for short-term foreign workers in Sweden could affect Thai berry pickers who travel here to work. 

Those working here for less than six months are taxed under the Act on Special Income Tax for Non-residents: the employer deducts 25% of the workers’ earnings. Alternatively, the Thai worker can be taxed according to normal income tax rules.

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The employer who pays wages to the berry picker must pay employment tax, make tax deductions and send a statement of income to the tax office and to the employee. This applies irrespective of whether the berry picker is paid for every kilogram picked or by the hour.

The Department of Employment in Thailand has alerted Thai berry pickers searching for jobs in Sweden about these new tax rules.

Source: Al Jazeera

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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