Union and pea pickers clash over working conditions

Some pea pickers on Funen disagree say their employer is underpaying them, but others say they like the job and have become unwitting union pawns

Some pea pickers on the island of Funen are accusing the trade union 3F of using them as pawns in the union's efforts to challenge the working conditions of migrant workers who toil in Denmark’s fields.

In a series of articles published last week by the union's newsletter, Fagbladet 3F, the union accused Denmark’s largest pea producer, Peter Skov, of underpaying its employees, taking their passports and trapping them in employment.

Portuguese pea pickers Regina Abreu and Daniel Cosmo complained that Peter Skov did not ensure a promised minimum 30-hour working week to ensure that the pea pickers earned a decent minimum wage.

Their pay slips show that they earned around 140 kroner per day over 19 days in June and July picking peas in Refsvindinge in southern Funen. After accommodation and transport costs were deducted, the two were left with about 70 kroner per day.

3F spokesperson Morten Fischer-Nielsen accused Peter Skov of misleading pea pickers about their working conditions.

“The employer deceived the foreign pea pickers,” Fischer-Nielsen stated on 3F’s website. “They were enticed here with the promise of a job with a decent wage, but they’ve been cheated.”

Abreau also complained about Peter Skov's practice of taking the passports of pea pickers who were given advances on their wages.

“Weekly advance payments act as a credit system which gets people to continue working against their will,” Abreu told 3F.

The owner and proprietor of the pea production company, Peter Skov Johansen responded to the allegations, claiming that it took time for pea pickers to learn the trade and that many earned a decent living especially when the harvest improved later in the season.

He confirmed that he took some passports from his employees and argued it was necessary as many had absconded after receiving their advance wages.

“It’s because we are trying to help them,” Johansen told 3F. “They arrive with no money in their pockets so we give them an advance wage but many ran off. So for a period we said that people have to deposit their passport and identity cards. I think it is necessary, what else am I supposed to do?”

While around a dozen of his 275 pea pickers went on strike earlier this month over the wage conditions, 250 staged a counter-demonstration yesterday against 3F, accusing the union of misrepresenting their working conditions.

“[3F] came to our farm and only spoke to two people,” Irina Paun from Romania told TV2. “Now you can see 250 people who can tell you about pea picking. A lot of us have worked there for many years and there is nothing wrong.”

The pea pickers demonstrated outside the Nyborg branch of 3F carrying banners that read “Peas and love” and “Let us work in Denmark”. But the demonstration did not have much impact on the union, which criticised Johansen for not entering a collective bargaining agreement to guarantee a good wage for his employees.

“They pay people roughly half of what they would get if they were covered by the Danish model,” Fischer-Nielsen told TV2. “We think that people working in Denmark should work according to Danish working conditions and collective bargaining agreements.”

Johansen’s pea pickers are not paid according to a collective bargaining agreement and after he refused to compensate pea pickers who claim to have been underpaid, 3F stated that it intends to bring the case to the agricultural employer’s association, GLS-A, which has a collective bargaining agreement in place with 3F.

The fact that Johansen has not budged despite 3F’s stories means that pea pickers benefit little from all the extra attention, according to Paun.

“No-one is dissatisfied, because we earn more here than you could possibly imagine in our country," Paun told TV2. "I also work as a nurse at home but I definitely don’t earn as much money as here.”

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