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JUHANI ARTTO
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Unions adamant:
Same rules for Finns must apply to immigrant labour


Helsinki (09.11.2010
- Juhani Artto) In Finland the question of work-related immigration is a fairly recent experience when compared with most other Western European countries. And, this is primarily due to the fact that Finland was a country -up until just a few decades ago- where labour emigration clearly exceeded work-related immigration.

In the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s employers cautiously broached the question of the need to import foreign labour but in both instances the debate flitted out quickly as the timing for addressing this very issue, ironically enough, happened to coincide with periods of recession and high unemployment.

It is fair to say the real starting shot in the discussion and debate on
work-related immigration began with the immigration policy programme, approved in October 2006, by Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen
's government. Labour market organizations participated in its preparation.

The main purpose of the programme is to analyse matters that concern
work-related immigration from the outside of the European Union. As to the citizens of the EU Member States, an essentially new situation was created with Finland joining the Union in 1995 and by the EU expansion
in the 2000s, with the accession of 12 new member states. Now the principle of free movement of labour is the same for Finland as it is for all other EU Member States. Citizens of each member state are free to work or seek work in other member states.
 
Ageing population increases the need for immigrant labour

One of the starting points for the government
's immigration policy programme centred around projected estimates which concluded that without the impact of immigration the working age population is set to shrink at an alarmingly rate. According to the latest forecasts the
working age population is likely to decrease by 200,000 by the year 2020. The purpose of attracting immigrant labour to Finland is to complement, not replace, the Finnish labour force, the programme outlines.

This time round the recession that began in autumn 2008 has not served to sideline debate on work-related immigration. Indeed attitudes and policies towards immigration and immigrants have become one of the most important issues leading up to the April 2011 parliamentary elections.

The role of the labour market organizations vis a vis labour-related
immigration can be divided into two strands. The employers have emphasized the need for work-related immigration, mindful of the ageing population. For the same reason, the trade unions have admitted the existence of this need but the trade unions' interest has always focused on the rules concerning the use of foreign labour and on how these rules are respected.

Foreign workers must be bound by the same rules Finnish workers
have, the trade union movement insists. It means respect for Finnish
legislation and for the circa 400 collective agreements, signed by the labour market organizations.

The unions are highly critical of the way in which immigrant labour has been employed in recent years and are alarmed at abuses in certain sectors. At a time when tens of thousands of Finns are suffering unemployment work has gone -often under illegal arrangements- to foreign employees. Shady companies are paying these foreign workers wages and salaries that fall dramatically short of the minimum levels set in collective agreements. Also the working weeks these people endure may clearly exceed the upper limits set in collective agreements and the legislation. In addition, such companies have often evaded taxes and neglected pension and social security contributions.

Problems concentrated in the private sector

The problem is acutely felt in the construction industry. Many abuses
have also been highlighted in the catering industry. The trade unions covering these industries
-Construction Trade Union and Service Union United PAM- are actively struggling against social dumping of immigrant labour.

The public sector has employed a limited number of foreigners, and so far there have no cases of social dumping. But the risk of shady entrepreneurs penetrating public services is increasing as pressure to subcontract them has constantly grown, warns Jarkko Eloranta, the Vice President of The Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors.

Breaking the law and rule infringement in the construction and some other industries has been facilitated by the scarce resources available to the authorities whose job it is to ensure labour laws are being adhered to and respected. Over the past years trade union organizations have been persistent in their demand for more inspectors be engaged so as to make the risk of getting caught a significant deterrent factor. Right now the risk of detection is very low.
 
The situation would dramatically improve if trade union organizations were, as the unions propose, allowed to take group lawsuits and if contractors would be effectively obliged to make their subcontractors obey the Finnish legislation and collective agreements.
 
However, work done by the union movement has not led to the expected or desired results. Ralf Sund, the economic policy expert of the union confederation STTK, is cautiously optimistic that the employer side will become more active in demanding, together with the unions, more effective control.
"Law abiding companies would benefit from more effective control as the abuse of immigrant labour weakens their own position in respect of competition", Sund argues.

He, in line with other union movement representatives, warns that leaving space for social dumping may lead to the birth of a two-tier labour market. Still now social dumping can be regarded as a marginal phenomenon, when related to the total number of working people, 2.5 million, Sund concludes.

Demand of health and social care services increases

In the health and social care service branches the number of foreign
employees has grown but still remains low. The amount of old people who need these services is however rapidly increasing for now and into the foreseeable future. The number of people who are 65 years of age is set to rise from the current 16 per cent to at least 26 per cent by 2040, experts predict.

The availability of labour in these service sectors is especially critical because of the age structure of the present labour force. In 2020 up to half
of these sectors
' present employees will no longer be available for these sectors' employers.

Many experts believe that the growing needs of services cannot be satisfied without a sizable injection of foreign employees. Tehy, The Union of Health and Social Care Professionals, has in this connection, often highlighted the fact that thousands of Finnish health care professionals work abroad, for example in Norway and United Kingdom, where they are paid clearly better salaries than those paid for similar tasks in Finland.

Immigrants have a growing role in the labour market

The number of people who have permanently moved to Finland has increased rapidly from the early 1990s. In 1990, there were 30,000
foreign residents in Finland. Now there are about 150,000. The figures do not include immigrants who have obtained Finnish citizenship during this period. If this group were to be also included then number of immigrants and people with an immigrant background living permanently in Finland rises to over 200,000.

This very heterogeneous group has a real significance on the labour supply
in several sectors. In the greater capital region they make up a substantial
proportion of the bus drivers and cleaners. However, the type of employment where immigrants are to be found conceals a fact which is often overlooked. Regardless education and work experience it is much more difficult for immigrants than for Finns to find a job. As a consequence many immigrants work in so called entry jobs that do not correspond to their education.

Trade unions remind of unemployment

At present, the unemployment rate in Finland is about 8 per cent. Not even the most favourable scenarios promise any rapid reduction in the unemployment rate. In the discussion on work-related immigration trade union organizations demand that the government increase its efforts to improve employment opportunities for Finns, emphasizing the principle that immigrant labour should not replace Finnish labour force but complement it. (Read more on unemployment: Employment Bulletin, published by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy)


More figures related to the issue:

  • Over 5.3 million people live permanently in Finland.
  • The number of employed people with an immigrant background has doubled or tripled in the 2000s. In 2007 the employment rate for this group was from 53 to 58 per cent (70 per cent of the entire population). Participation in working life varies widely between the various national groups of immigrants.
  • The unemployment rate of those with an immigrant background, has decreased clearly but it still is more than double the 8 per cent
    unemployment rate of the whole labour force.
  • Among the people with an immigrant background 75 per cent are of working age (from 18 to 64 years of age). In the entire population 60 per cent belong to the same age group.
  • Some 35,000 - 45,000 foreigners work temporarily in Finland. Most of them are EU Member State citizens.
  • In 2006 Finnish companies employed in Finland directly 24,000 foreigners who did not live permanently in Finland.
  • In 2007 almost 11,000 people, posted by employers in other EU Member States, worked in Finland for a limited period of time. Of these the largest numbers were Estonians (6,500 persons) and Poles (2,300 persons).
  • With certain exceptions (for example berry pickers and teachers), people coming from countries not belonging to the EU need a stay permit to work in Finland. In 2009 about 10,000 such stay permits were applied for. Over 20 per cent of the applications were rejected. Russia tops the list with its 3,229 applications. It was followed by Ukraine (1,378), China (856), Turkey (729), Croatia (594), the Philippines (425) and Thailand (318).
  • The largest vocational groups among the applicants were cleaners (1,197), cooks (1,090), garden workers (753), drivers (669), plumbers (518), agricultural labourers (505), welders (490), managers (339), platers (270), kitchen and restaurant workers (231) and construction workers (211).
  • Illegal immigration to Finland is a very small phenomenon.

The main source of the above figures is this Finnish language article: Kaija Ruotsalainen, Ulkomaalaisten tilapäisen työnteon tilastointi on hajanaista ja puutteellista, 30.09.2009


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