The harvest season in July is looming just over a month later, and Finnish berry farms are still suffering from labor shortages caused by interest rate restrictions.

Last week, the Thai Ministry of Labor announced that it would completely block the move of seasonal workers to Finland this summer. The share of berries collected by foreign pickers has been about 90 percent in recent years. In addition to Thailand, workers have flowed from Ukraine and Russia, among others.

  • Read more: The price of domestic wild berries threatens to rise to the clouds - foreign pickers cannot enter the country

Pauli Seppänen, the owner of Korpiniemi Mansika in Kainuu's Suomusalmi for 30 years, tells Taloussanomat that the interest rate restrictions have also cut off the migration flow of Russian pickers this year. Seppänen says that he had favored domestic labor in his recruitment policy even before the epidemic period, but over the past ten years, the employment of young Finnish people has become significantly more difficult.

- Our employment contract covers three weeks, which consists of pre-, peak and post-selections. What is toxic to us is that young Finns meet to escape from the farm after a week or a half, Seppänen says.

The berries must be picked on a daily basis

Seppänen thinks that the poor picking ability of Finnish young people is explained by improved home conditions and changes in family culture. During its first twenty years of operation, Korpiniemi Strawberry employed only young Finns.

- This is a very simple thing. Before, parents wanted children to make their own money. Now, many families have young people of summer working age to whom their parents give gratuitous money. Of course, these young people should not go to work instead.

According to Seppänen, Korpiniemen Mansikka has managed to recruit a few young Finns this year. The Kainuu entrepreneur calls for securing harvesting in exceptional circumstances requires the cooperation of farmers, parents of young people of summer working age and the state. Currently, farmers are frozen by uncertainty.

Pauli Seppänen on his farm in Suomusalmi.

Photo: Anniina Seppänen

- Berry does not wait long after ripening in the field. They must be picked up on a daily basis. If we do not get workers from Ukraine, we will really be in for a treat. At this point, retirees will have to be employed.

According to Seppänen, the state could secure the summer harvest by paying a separate incentive to domestic young people. The entrepreneur points out that similar grants have been distributed to companies in other sectors during the crisis.

- This would be a relatively modest amount. It doesn’t have to be per employee other than even a hundred euros a week. It is quite certain that this would attract young people to farms even from cities. If the incentive payment is paid only after the harvest season, the young person is less likely to run away from the farm before the end of the employment relationship.

Pickers are accommodated in summer cottages and terraced houses

According to Seppänen, parents should ensure that the young person commits to work for the period specified in the agreement. Fathers and mothers living within a reasonable distance of the farm could assist in, for example, riding their children. In the past summer, Korpiniemi Strawberry has, in return, taken care of taking some young people back home after a day of work.

In March, Miika Ilomäki, Executive Director of the Association of Fruit and Berry Growers, estimated to Taloussanomat that the low employment of Finnish young people on berry farms can be explained by the remote locations of the farms. According to Seppänen, Korpiniemen Mansikka has rented, among other things, terraced houses and summer cottages to its seasonal workers during the working season. Employees pay half of the apartment’s monthly rent.

  • Read more: What happens to the summer harvest if the borders are closed?

- They get a clean apartment with washing and cooking facilities. During the working day, they get food from us on the farm starting with breakfast.

Usually, the apartments are divided according to Seppänen according to citizenship. Russians, Ukrainians and Finns have lived in their own apartments.

- Here, too, there have been terrible changes over the years. At one time, some workers might live in a tent for a month. No picker needs to live like this today.

At best, a daily salary of one hundred euros

According to Seppänen, Korpiniemen Mansikka pays its employees a contract salary based on the so-called ladder tax principle. Pickers get as much money a day as they collect in a three-liter berry pot.

- At best, Ukrainian workers have collected berries for thirty kopecks a day. It is a daily salary of roughly one hundred euros. In many cases, however, a booth is accumulated for only sixty euros a day.

Freshly picked strawberries on the Suomusalmi berry farm.

Photo: Anniina Seppänen

In the public debate, foreign seasonal workers are invariably perceived as cheap labor, but Seppänen says that Korpiniemi Strawberry pays Finns and foreigners the same for their work.

According to Seppänen, the Eastern Europeans who took part in the Kainuu harvest are experienced pickers, and many have visited the same farm for several consecutive summers. Marjatila strives to arrange good working conditions for foreigners as well as for Finns. According to Seppänen, the treatment of seasonal workers on some farms has been harsh.

- They may be treated like dogs. Break times have been unreasonable and workers have been put to pick up in heavy rain. We start from the premise that foreign workers are valued where all people are. They are very honest, hardworking and straight forward. In addition, the entrepreneur can be sure that they will not leave the farm in the middle of work away.

The Government has outlined that 9,000 seasonal workers can come to Finland from Ukraine this year for agricultural work. After the end of the seasonal work, they can also stay in Finland to pick wild berries. However, Ukraine requires at least three months of employment from its citizens traveling to Finnish berry farms.