While Julian Assange dominated headlines here and abroad with news of Wikileaks, false rape accusations, etc., a smaller local story has grabbed my attention.
I thought it would be a familiar trope: foreign farmworkers strike for better treatment. However, the specifics are pretty different, and I am trying to figure out what this story tells me about Sweden as a community.
I am used to hearing about Mexican workers in California’s strawberry fields, for example. Here, the story here involves Asian workers picking cloudberries in northern Sweden. Instead of, say, striking to protect themselves from pesticides or protesting immigration crackdowns, 120 Chinese workers were marching in northern Sweden for more pay.
And here’s what I thought of as the main difference: The workers were here legally, and getting minimum wage by law. The government here at first told the companies doing the hiring that it was their responsibility to pay the workers a minimum wage, according to the news report I read.
But then couldn’t do anything about it, somehow.
The workers supposedly earn more than the equivalent of $2,000 a month. But their debts add up, from their travel expenditures, living costs, and other fees from the companies doing the hiring.
I thought at first that this meant that, hey, I’m living in a really worker-friendly country. But I’m reading subsequent reports about Vietnamese workers and others, concerning local union responses and how new immigration laws have made it easier for foreign workers to come, but harder for them to survive. Add to that some of the comments from “locals” (one expressed willingness to pick berries while waiting for their masters program to start up again) and I realize have yet to understand the fine points of this labor dispute, or this country’s attitudes toward labor and immigration.
One thing I really don’t understand: The Red Cross just sent care packages to help workers who were totally unprepared for freezing rain in summery Sweden. How in the world are there any berries to pick??