The Bitter Business of Berries PART II: An Isaan couple become berry pickers in Finland

In Part II of our four-part story on berry pickers in Finland, we find Jenpreeya and her husband traveling with hundreds of other workers to Finland to begin their work. They encounter frustrations along the way but keep collecting berries day in and day out. Did their gamble to travel so far pay off for the couple?

It was on June 27, 2022 when Jenpreeya and her husband left their two children and elderly parents behind in Nong Bua Lamphu province. After arriving at the Helsinki Airport, they rode in transport arranged by the company to Hollola, about 100 kilometers north. Despite the cold weather, Jenpreeya was sweating as the bus was packed and they had to stand for a long time. 

She felt the heat even more once learned that they had to pay an extra transport fee of 100 euros ($107/3,800 baht) to the company.

Finally, before the new workers there appeared a three-storey, yellow school building that had been converted into accommodation for the more than 500 workers to be housed there. 

Carrying their hopes with them, the new workers move into a repurposed school in Hollola, Finland

 Its square rooms were divided into 2-meter-long units. Inside each unit was jammed with small beds. There was no segregation by sex. All workers, male and female, stayed in the same rooms. Personal belongings were scattered on the floor and under beds. Small ropes were strung from one side of the room to the other for hanging laundry.

Living space was tight. The three toilets and six showers were even tighter for the 500 people living in the former school

The bedroom situation was overcrowded, to be sure, but more so were the bathrooms: there were only three toilets and six bathrooms for the 500 living there. To save time and shorten the queue, many times husbands and wives had to shower together. With too few toilets for that many people, it was also hard to maintain hygiene and proper sanitation.

The berry fruit, in yellow, black, and red

As the bird flies, Thailand is 7,732 kilometers away from Finland. From Finland to the North Pole is just 2,891 kilometers. The locals are used to the cold here, but not for Thais who are native to the tropical zone.

Finland and much of Scandinavia is a land of berries. Beyond the familiar strawberry, there’s cloudberries, blueberries, and lingonberries, each with their own harvesting time.

July to September is the season for berry picking, when the temperature during the day ranges from 12-15 degree celsius. From late night until early morning, though,temperatures can drop below zero.

There are three types of berries that Thai workers travel across continents to pick. Each has its own harvest time. They have official names in English, but the Isaan people give other names to the berries as they call fruits in their hometown language.

Mid to late July is the time to pick cloudberries, dubbed “the yellow fruit” (mak luang) by Isaan pickers. The fruit is not abundantly available in the wild, and must be handpicked one by one. Workers have to leave their accommodations around 2 a.m. and return around 11 p.m. to pick the yellow fruit, whose selling price can be as pricey as 8-10 euros ($8.60-$10.70) per kilogram.

Late July to mid September is the harvest time for blueberries, which workers from Isaan call “the black fruit” (mak dam). Workers have to leave for work around 4 a.m. and return at 10 p.m. The price for blueberries is around 1.50-2.40 euros ($1.60-$2.60) per kilogram.

September is the season for lingonberries. Its bright red color has earned it the name “red fruit” (mak daeng) among Isaan pickers. These berries grow plentifully and are most easily found. Workers leave for work at 5 a.m. and return at 8 p.m. Rakes are used to sweep the fruit into buckets and they are sold for 0.80 to 1.40 euros ($0.85 to $1.50) per kilogram.

October is the beginning of the winter. As snow starts to fall, berry plants hibernate and Thai workers return home.

Feeling lost, the Isaan couple make their way

Jenpreeya and her husband started working as strawberry pickers on a farm. They earned a weekly wage of only 50 euro (1,900 baht) per person. It was barely enough to cover their daily expenses.

After picking strawberries in Hollola for about 20 days, they went on to pick wild berries in Lahti which was around nine kilometers away. What she experienced there left her speechless.

A weekly stipend was provided to workers for a rental car and trailer 

They had to rent a car and a trailer from the company. Five passengers were put into a car, with Jenpreeya’s husband behind the wheel. A trailer was connected to carry tools and the berries they were to pick. Each of them were to receive a weekly stipend of 70 euros from the company. Each car team has to design its own schedule of how to take the most efficient route to and from accommodations, the forest where the berries are, the gas station, and a weighing station–all located tens of kilometers apart from each other. And there’s one there to give them guidance.

Workers had to get themselves from forests to gas stations to weighing stations. The long drives allow some time to rest.

The routine was familiar. Every day at 4 a.m., Jenpreeya and the others travel to find forests where they think they might find berries. They stop for gas a few times, have lunch, and then head back to the forests. At the end of the day, they bring berries they found throughout the day to a weighing station. They keep records of how many berries workers pick every day. There, they are given dinner along with a breakfast and lunch for the next day. They repeat this process each day.

But as the days went by, a sort of suspicion began to grow in Jenpreeya’s mind. What remains with her is just how unguided they were.

“To go pick berries, they divided us into teams of five for each car,” she says. Everyone was doing this from the start. It was her husband who was the one driving in her team’s car. 

“Of course, we didn’t have a clue about the routes [we ought to take]. The agent told us berries were everywhere, but we didn’t know the directions. They just let us go, like letting ducks roam free in a field to find food.”

For Jenpreeya, it was frustrating and affected their ability to make money. “When we texted them asking for a pin on a map,” she says, “we never got any answer. Instead, they charged us for a scouting fee.”

“We were just guessing like picking mushrooms,” she says. They asked each other, “Will there be any over there?” And so they just went to some place and hoped. “If we’re lucky, we get some. If we’re unlucky, then nothing because it wasn’t berries on a farm.”

There was “no one was there helping us,” she says. The helplessness, the hopelessness, made her homesick. 

“It was then that I felt this strong urge to go home,” Jenpreeya says. “I missed my children. Some days I didn’t want to go out to work at all.”

The cost of gas at the time was 2.20 euros ($2.40) per liter. It was more than 70 kilometers to go from their accommodations to the gas station. While searching for berries, if they had to pick up lunch at a designated venue, it might’ve meant another 30 kilometers, there and back. They might need to drive longer distances each day, depending on whether or not they could pick enough of those yellow, black or red fruits.

A Thai Isaan lunch provides a short respite to break up a long day at work

There were five passengers in Jenpreeya’s car at the beginning. Their pooled weekly stipend of 350 euros was probably enough to cover travel costs. But unable to find enough berries, two of their team had dropped off. With only Jenpreeya, her husband, and her sister-in-law, their combined 210 euros could cover just so much gas, restricting their ability to venture out to farther berry patches.

One euro per kilogram

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had informed workers that they would have to pick berries in very cold weather, and their day could start as early as 3 a.m. and end as late as 6 p.m. Beyond the harsh weather, the ministry reminded them that they must compete with others in order to pick enough berries to earn a good wage. 

Each and every day, workers would have to pick 15 to 20 kilograms of berries at a minimum. To eventually make the experience profitable, they would have to pick 50 kilograms of the wild fruit a day. 

But even that might have been too much, especially for Jenpreeya.

A three-liter bucket in her left hand, and a rake in her right hand, she sweeps up berries from dawn to dusk. The picked berries are weighed and recorded. The company then calculates the wage and puts it on the workers’ accounts. The prices of the berries might be higher or lower due to the size of harvest and market prices. No one knows how much they’ve earned for the berries they’ve picked until it’s revealed the day they’re going home.

“We tried to pick as many as we could,” Jenpreeya says. “We’d get, like, three, four sacks. I thought each time [what I’d picked] was a lot but when they were weighed, it was only 20-30 kilograms.”

Workers were responsible for finding, collecting, and selling berries every day

She was frustrated. “I didn’t get it,” she says. “A kilo of berries is not that much. I used to be a vendor. I know what a kilo feels like.”

She suspected the company was cheating them: “I thought they must have rigged the scale.”

“Not only that,” she goes on, “[our] company bought berries at just 1.10-1.20 euros ($1.08-$1.30) per kilogram. We drove out and saw other companies buying at two euros ($2.15) per kilo. Then I talked to the Thai wife of a Finnish man. She said she could sell for up to 10 euros ($10.76) per kilo.” 

But these pickers took a few extra steps–choosing good berries and cleaning them “like those sold in supermarkets back home.”

Jenpreeya and her husband had worked in this foreign land for over 15 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, for over 70 consecutive days. They had done everything they could to pick as many berries as was humanly possible. 

The day of reckoning

September 11, 2022 had come. Some 400 to 500 workers had gathered at the camp. The next day they’d be flying home. But now it was time for them to be paid, a sum to compensate them for all the work they’d done and difficulties they’d faced.

The moment had come…and Jenpreeya was speechless. “Each one of us,” she says, “were just devastated.” 

To her horror, not only was she paid nothing, absolutely nothing for their labors. The company said there were all these deductions that had to be taken out: her initial loan, tools, food, gas, and so on. All added up and the result was negative. Jenpreeya learned she owed the company 900 euros ($970/34,600 baht).

Without a euro to their names, the company gave each her and her husband 100 euros so they could pay for their way to their flight out.

Look forward to Part III of this story on December 15, 2023