Berry picker plight examined by rights group

After several years of scandals involving guest workers imported to Sweden to pick berries in the north of the country, the Swedish human rights and corporate social responsibility watchdog Swedwatch has opened an investigation.

Berry picker plight examined by rights group

“We want to establish which companies are involved and the extent to their responsibility, review the regulations and legislation and try to perform an analysis of what it is that goes wrong, year after year,” Viveka Risberg at Swedwatch said.

Swedwatch is a non profit organisation reporting on Swedish business relations, performing research for sustainable business and monitoring corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The group normally monitors Swedish firms at work in low-wage countries and its operation are regularly funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

This is the first time the group has opened an inspection in Sweden and thus funding has been sought from other sources.

“We are chasing both unions and the municipalities and others. The Migration Board has said no, the enterprise ministry has not replied, so we are hopeful that other actors can contribute.”

“The Peace & Love Foundation has contributed 20,000 kronor ($3,150), the Building Workers’ Union has also said yes but has not yet come up with a figure.”

Despite the broad search for funding from various groups with an apparent interest in the issue, Risberg underlined that the group was keen to ensure that political agendas do not dictate the outcome.

“The most important thing when we complete the report is for it to be completely independent, because there are many political agendas at play here,” she said

Swedwatch aims to produce a report which can be used as a framework for discussions and decisions for municipalities and Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag.

The group intend to have a first short version ready by June and produce a completed report in August. The completed report will be translated into Thai and Vietnamese and be available for download from their homepage.

Thousands of seasonal workers from Asia, most of them from Thailand, come to Sweden each summer mainly to pick wild berries in the north under sometimes difficult working conditions.

After a disastrous season in 2009 the situation came to a head with many of the foreign berry pickers heading home weighed down by debt instead of profits. In 2010 the pickers were for the first time provided with contracts guaranteeing them a monthly wage of at least 16,372 kronor ($2,321).

Some Swedish unions however warned that the minimum salary was insufficient, pointing out that it in some cases is hardly enough to cover the money the workers have to shell out for things like plane tickets, housing and car rental.

Despite the minimum wage requirement, the 2010 berry season was characterised by protests and scandals.

In August around 120 seasonal berry pickers from Vietnam staged two demonstrations against their working conditions. In one of the demonstrations, some 70 berry pickers locked six of their team leaders in a room at the former school where they were living, a move which led to police detention.

Furthermore there were reports of hungry berry pickers shooting birds for food. In October it emerged that 135 Thai berry pickers had left Åsele in northern Sweden to return to Thailand empty handed after the owners of their employer, Lömjsö Berry, allegedly emptied the firm of cash and fled.

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Germany jails Vietnamese man who aided Cold War-style abduction

A German court on Wednesday sentenced a Vietnamese man to nearly four years in jail for taking part in a brazen Cold War-style kidnapping ordered by Hanoi of an oil executive from a Berlin park.

Germany jails Vietnamese man who aided Cold War-style abduction
Long N.H. standing trial in April in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Judges at the Berlin court said the 47-year-old Czech-Vietnamese national, identified as Long N.H., was guilty of aiding an abduction and working for a foreign intelligence service.

But they handed him a relatively mild sentence of three years and ten months after he confessed to his involvement.

“The accused knew of the plans of the Vietnamese secret service, but did not belong to the top level of command,” judges said in their verdict, according to DPA.

Long N.H. admitted during his trial that he rented the vehicle used in last July's abduction of fugitive Vietnamese state company official Trinh Xuan Thanh, who was spirited back to Hanoi.

Thanh – also a Communist party functionary who was seeking political
asylum in Germany – has since been sentenced to two life terms in Vietnam on corruption charges.

The 52-year-old and his companion were walking in Berlin's Tiergarten park when they were dragged into a van in broad daylight and smuggled back to Vietnam.

The German government was outraged, calling it a “scandalous violation” of its sovereignty.

Communist-ruled Vietnam has always insisted that Thanh, the former head of PetroVietnam Construction, returned voluntarily to face embezzlement charges.

Thanh's German lawyer, Petra Schlagenhauf, has described the kidnapping as
“like a story from the Cold War”.

Mystery route

Long N.H., was once among thousands of so-called guest workers in communist East Germany. He was later denied asylum and resettled in Prague.

He was arrested there last August and extradited to Germany days later.

He admitted renting the van used in the abduction in Prague and driving it to Berlin, but he was not at the wheel during the kidnapping. He then drove the van back to Prague.

It remains unclear exactly how Thanh was transported back to his home country, but investigators believe he was driven to the Slovakian capital Bratislava and then flown to Hanoi.

German media have reported that a Slovakian government plane lent to a visiting Vietnamese delegation at the time was involved in the transfer.

Slovakia has said it noticed nothing suspicious about the delegation or their flights, but warned Hanoi of harsh consequences if the allegations proved true.