Justice for exploited Cambodians in Sweden

08 September 2016 10:52


The Cambodian migrant workers who were cheated of their salaries when planting trees in the forests of Sweden in 2014 will finally get their just compensation. The workers will receive a total of 282,069 SEK ($32,574) in state wage guarantee after receiving much-need legal assistance from the Swedish Forestry Union GS. 

The workers got the news last Friday and have now received confirmation that the payments are on route to their bank accounts. 

"The workers are ecstatic. I met one of them this morning and he asked that we pass on their sincerest thanks to the BWI, Fair Action, GS and LO," says Joel Preston from the Community Legal Education Center in Cambodia who have been assisting the workers. 

"The Court’s decision to pay out the wage guarantee is justice for the workers, but also to the Swedish labor market model that must resist exploitation of workers regardless of their nationality," says Per-Olof Sjöö, president of the GS-union and the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) to the Swedish newspaper Arbetet

The 72 workers came to the north of Sweden in 2014 after a promise of earning at least $2,300 per month by the contractor “Botnia Skog AB” – a subcontractor of the big forestry company “Holmen”. 

The union GS had warned both Holmen and the Swedish Migration Board in giving the company permission to recruit workers from abroad noting its previous record of maltreatment and exploitation of workers and non-payment of taxes. However, the Migration Board and Holmen chose to ignore the union’s concerns and warnings. 

After arriving the workers had to sleep on the floor of a horse stall and they did not get enough food and water and needed to shower outside in the freezing cold. 

"We only received one salary. In the end some of us had to borrow money from the employer to buy food, we were so hungry," said Sapmphors Lon who is one of the workers. 

When they returned to Cambodia, many of them had still not received their salaries – and while they were waiting for the money the company was declared bankrupt. 

The workers were then called to a law office were 11 of them were tricked into signing documents in Swedish that they could not understand – stating that they owed debts to the employer of a total of 300,000 SEK ($34,644 USD) due to housing costs while staying in Sweden. When the workers refused to pay, the employer went to the Swedish Enforcement Authority who stopped the payment of the state wage guarantee, because of the false debt the workers owed the company. 

The GS-union allocated money from their solidarity fund to pay for an attorney who helped the Cambodian migrant workers to pursue their case in Swedish court. As a result of the legal proceedings, the district court decided to ignore the debt that the workers were tricked into signing by their employer. 

“This is one of the most serious cases of abuse that we have seen in the Swedish forest sector,” says Magnus Lindberg from the GS-union who has been involved in the case in assisting the Cambodian migrant workers. 

“It cannot fall on unions in the forestry sector alone to ensure that workers are not exploited. The major forest companies must also be responsible and held accountable. They sell their products under the forest certification systems such FSC and PEFC and in doing so, this binds them to be socially responsible,” said Magnus Lindberg.