Cone pickers in Georgia are working under perilous conditions when they harvest the pine cones, later to become Christmas trees in Denmark.
Most work without protective equipment when they climb 30-40 meters tall trees, and it costs lives. Last year in September a Georgian cone picker plunged to his death as he sat on top of a 30 metre tall fir tree and picked cones. 54-year-old Ivane Kharebashvili was climbing without safety equipment and died, according to his death certificate of brain damage from the violent crash.
The cones should have been sold to a Danish company, says his wife, Lali Mardiani. “My husband was called up and offered to sell cones for a company from Denmark, although he is not directly employed by them,” says his widow, who does not know the name of the company. Danish companies are behind 70 percent of the seeds in Georgia. Denmark is the biggest player in the European Christmas market and produces almost one third of the 34 million Nordmann firs, which are sold annually in Europe.
And Danish companies are behind 70 percent of the seeds in Georgia. This year three Danish companies harvested seeds in Georgia. All three companies – Hede Denmark, Weckman and Levinsen & Abies – refused to take responsibility for the death. The Danish Christmas Tree Growers Association is not aware of the death this year, but takes security very seriously. “We have an ongoing dialogue with grain traders about it here – both at national and international level. Grain traders say they provide the safety equipment available, but we are not seeing everything. It is regrettable if one has fallen down because he did not use the equipment. And if he has not been given the equipment available, so I actually think it’s pretty serious”, said Chairman Claus Christensen. The death is not unique and his death in September is not unique.
Politiken went on a reporting trip to Georgia and talked to nine cone pickers working for Danish companies, either as laborers or employees of the Danish importers of Georgian subcontractors.
They each have knowledge of between 3 and 8 deaths from falling from trees. More control of the Danish companies is needed according Esben Emborg, the Danish consul in Georgia, and there is need for more control with the Danish companies that do not always live up to their responsibility to equip cone pickers safely. “There is undoubtedly a security problem in the industry. It is simply not good enough, as it looks right now, because not all pickers use safety equipment. All Danish companies must demonstrate that they have the will to ensure 100 percent safety for the Georgian cone pickers”, he says. The Danish seed company Levinsen & Abies is the largest importer of seed in Europe. Its director, Børge Klemmensen, recognizes that there are major security concerns in the industry. “There is no doubt that there are problems with safety in Georgia. There is a long way to go”, he says. Borge Klemmensen estimates that a maximum of 30-40 percent of his 155 employees use the safety equipment consistently. “I’m down there during the harvest every year, but I can not keep track of all pickers at the same time. Many find the equipment impractical or find it hinders their work and I cannot force them to wear it”, he says.
Picker had no safety equipment on
Borge Klemmensen knows of six deaths in Georgia. In 2002 one of his pickers died.
But according to Klemmensen he died of a heart attack. The director admits that the picker had no safety equipment on. One of the cone pickers, Politiken has spoken with are Giorgi Dvali. He is a laborer and picks both cones for German and Danish firms: “We have never been offered equipment. But of course we would like to have it”, he says.
Calls for greater responsibility for security
Several pickers are looking for those Danish companies take more responsibility for safety. But the Danish importers all have a Georgian partnering enterprise responsible for the recruitment of pickers, and thus they are not legally responsible for accidents. But according to Erik Werlauff, professor at Aalborg University specializing in corporate law, it’s a grey area. “I would rate them as active participants when they are down there during the entire harvest season. The very fact that one chooses to take the proper equipment down there, also shows that you are well aware that this borders on a legal liability”, assesses the professor.