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Finland is learning the meaning of immigration

Finland is learning the meaning of immigration

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén

Finland has taken longer to adapt its labour market to immigration than other Nordic countries. It is more than ten years ago now that the then Minister of Employment Tarja Filatov (Social Democratic Party) gathered Nordic integration expert to a meeting outside of Helsinki.

“We want to learn from Nordic countries with longer experience,” she said in the autumn of 2001. At the time everyone was talking about the future labour shortage and the need to compete with other countries for the best skilled people. But with the 2008 economic crisis the tables turned. When NLJ in 2010 wrote about integration in Finland the national political debate was focused on how to limit immigration to deal with the high unemployment.

Economic cycle

So the debate is governed by the economic cycle. Immigrants still make up a small part of the Finnish population, little more than four percent, yet unemployment is still higher than in Sweden, which has 14 percent immigrants. Unemployment among immigrants in Finland is also very high at more than 21 percent — the highest of all the Nordic countries. It would seem it is possible to combine a larger percentage of immigrants with lower unemployment. 

NLJ met Tarja Filatov in the Finnish parliament to find out more about what has happened to immigration in Finland. She served as Minister of Employment in three governments between 2000 and 2007. She now heads the parliamentary committee on working life and equality. One of her tasks is to lead the delegation for Roma issues. It works to develop cooperation between the Roma community and the authorities, and to support anti-discrimination work and promote equality.

The Social Democratic Party has, with encouragement from trade unions, taken a cautious approach to labour immigration.  

“There have been very optimistic assessments for how many are needed.”

Shortage within certain industries

Filatov says there are industries which need immigration to cover labour shortages, especially within the health sector. In other areas there are no such labour shortages.

“There aren’t enough immigrants in Finland for some employers, and they ask for more.”

She says companies want more foreign workers in order to cut costs by offering lower wages and benefits in different types of contracts and by using subcontractors. This is especially true for the construction industry. 

“And there is still discrimination out there.”

One problem, according to Filatov, is that employers have managed to cut wages to a level where it is getting difficult for people to survive on their take-home pay. Therefore work should be reorganised to make people more efficient and deserving of higher wages. Regrettably it is immigrants who get the blame for the worsening conditions, not employers, according to Filatov. She still thinks Finland can teach other countries a great deal. Language training for immigrants has improved a lot, as have anti-social dumping measures in the labour market.

Leading the way

Finland has been leading the way in several areas, she says. The Act on Contractors' Obligations and Liability means that companies which commission work from subcontractors must  first make sure their tax, pension and accident insurance policies are in order. Wages must be paid to bank accounts to reduce the chances of people working illegally. Furthermore, all shops and service providers much give all their customers receipts to prevent the grey economy from spreading. Swapping information between different authorities, like the tax office and others, has also proven to be an efficient way of combating fraud. 

Tarja Filatov is also a proponent of the cooperation on integration between municipal and state authorities which is happening on a local level through language courses and work placements, albeit with shrinking funding. She is also critical of the way asylum seekers are being treated, with many forced to go without working for long periods of time while they wait to hear whether they can stay in the country or not. 

Finland has decided that all construction workers must display a personal identification card featuring their tax code. This has led to criticism from the EU against what is seen as a breach of data protection directives. 

“I believe we can secure the system,” says Filatov.

The Social Democratic Party focuses on a fair working life. Tarja Filatov is for instance happy that the control of foreign labour again is being tightened to allow police to come along during workplace inspections, because nobody else is allowed to arrest people who try to flee the inspectors.


In recent years Finland has had its fair share of racism and attacks on immigrants.  Even though the populist party Perussuomalaiset (the True Finns) has made more or less serious attempts at getting rid of racist politicians, a new way of talking about immigrants has been spreading. Even though attitudes towards immigrants are largely positive in a European perspective, Tarja Filatov believes the population, just like in other countries, seems to be divided. 

Young people have an international outlook; they often study abroad for at least one semester and they have friends in other countries. But there are also people who are racists already at a very early age, with Islamophobia and a hatred of multiculturalism as driving forces. She knows there are researchers who daren’t speak out in public because they are afraid of physical violence. 

“I experience this too as a politician. Ten years ago you might get a nazi card in the post after speaking out. Now your email inbox goes mad and you avoid answering your telephone for a couple of days.”

The first refugees came from Chile and Vietnam in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s when new groups started coming, like Russians of Finnish heritage or Somalis. EU membership has meant a gradual opening of borders for labour immigrants from a majority of European countries. Just like in many other of the Nordic countries, many young people from the southern countries on the continent have come to Finland to look for work. 

It is, according to Tarja Filatov, important that people realise what kind of immigration they’re facing; people from other EU countries who are entitled to free movement, people from countries outside of the EU or refugees. That debate is still to come in Finland.


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