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Finland: New government wants increased immigration

Finland: New government wants increased immigration

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, Photo: Cata Portin

Finland has one of the lowest immigration rates in the EU, while its population is ageing quicker than anywhere else in the Union. That does not bode well for the country's future labour market. Now the new government wants to increase labour immigration. But the situation for those already in the country must be improved first.

“Our situation is pretty bad. People are having a hard time finding work they're qualified for”, says Astrid Thors, the Minister for EU and immigration.

There's been a rapid change in the attitude towards foreign labour in Finland. Just ten years ago, there was a law preventing foreigners from working for the state or local authorities, and those educated abroad had to complement their degrees with wide-ranging studies in Finland to gain the competence which was expected.

“Our government's programme does address this, to simplify things. We'll look at how foreign qualifications can be accepted in a fair way here”, says Astrid Thors, who has also been a Finnish MEP for many years.

A comprehensive action plan for increased immigration will be drawn up in the coming months. Finnish authorities are now trying various approaches to attract foreign labour. Representatives for industry say everyone must help. One measure would be to stop insisting on a perfect grasp of the Finnish language in order to get work.

“We must all change our attitudes in order to help foreigners thrive in Finland”, says Martti Mäenpää, Director General at the employers' union Technology Industries of Finland, which counts Nokia as one of their members. 

Colourful hairdressers 

If attitude is the main issue, the government would do well in studying the hairdresser saloon Tukkatalo in the Munksnäs area of Helsinki. The women working here come from Russia, Estonia, Vietnam and Kenya. And Finland of course.

“Customers are very positive to our multicultural work place. Just yesterday a customer shook hands in thanks”, says saloon owner Johanna Ahlberg.

It's terribly difficult to find qualified hairdressers in Finland, and wages are so low that many prefer to work in the black market, not paying taxes.

Johanna Ahlberg thinks her solution works brilliantly. There are no cultural clashes - on the contrary. People with foreign backgrounds often value home, family and working relationships higher than Finnish workers. They are deeply committed to their job.

“And we get different worldviews to boot.”

The lack of language skills is not seen as a problem, the workers' skills is what counts. 

Slovakian welders 

Another work place which often employs foreigners with good results is Levyosa - a workshop in the town of Forssa making industrial metal parts. There's a lack of skilled metal workers in Finland, and Levyosa has so far been importing workers from Estonia. Estonian wages have been rising rapidly, and are getting close to Finnish levels. But living costs on the other side of the Finnish Gulf are still considerably lower. So Levyosa has found around ten Slovakian welders, through the recruitment agency Opteam - only it might have been the other way around.

“I met a nice Finnish girl who told me many nice things about Finland. And my cousin already worked here, and told me there were jobs to be had. So I wanted to give it a try”, says Norbert Michalec.

His family remains in the town of Tren'cin in Northern Slovakia. Michalec has worked in Slovenia, the Czech Republic and in Germany.

“I don't understand this language, but that's not a problem. People understand each other anyway.

” How long does he intend to stay in Finland? He laughs instead of answering that question.

 Government minister Astrid

 Thors says imported labour cannot be a lasting solution, even if Norbert Michalec's wages are on the same level as his Finnish colleagues'.

“There are problems with the casual labour which is being brought in. We don't know how widespread it is, but many things lead us to believe the worst working conditions and real abuse is to be found in this sector. What we really need in relation to our new EU member states, is less bureaucratic rules and regulations.

That's much better for the immigrants, and it will also mean they'll get work equal to that of Finnish citizens.”

The Levyosa boss thinks it has been a good thing to remove labour migration border obstacles. If he were to ask for more from the government, he'd choose support for basic coursing in language and cultural understanding.

Lack of manpower is a problem for many trades and industries, especially within metal and workshop industries, construction, the ship building industry and the health care sector. The rapidly growing pay packets in the IT industry also tell a tale of big earnings to be had for those with the right qualifications. 

Shrinking manpower

From a statistical point of view, the lack of manpower won't be felt until 2010. That's when large numbers of workers start going into retirement. The over-65s will grow as a group, while the number of younger people will fall. The working population is expected to have decreased by 400,000 people by 2030.

Finland is ahead of the pack within the EU, but other member states will face the same problems later. The government has no quantitative goals for securing foreign manpower. Astrid Thors has no solution for how to make Finland a more tempting destination for foreign workers, but puts her hopes on foreign students staying on to find work, amongst other things.

“We're attractive in the fields of art, technology and some other areas, and perhaps those studying these subjects will secure a foothold. We also want to make it easier for students to stay and gain citizenship.”

She also mentions expatriate Finns as an important pool, and Finland has already launched campaigns to tempt people home from the UK and other places. 

Comprehensive reform

 After 12 years of social democratic labour market policies, Finland is ripe for a comprehensive reform. The new coalition government, comprising the Centre Party, the Finnish National Coalition Party, the Swedish People's Party and the Green League, has decided to create a new ministry with responsibility for both the labour market and trade and industry.

The new Labour Minister is Tarja Cronberg, chairwoman for the Green League. Astrid Thors from the Swedish People's Party is responsible for labour immigration. The minister with overall responsibility is Mauri Pekkarinen from the Centre Party. The goal is to create 80,000 - 100,000 new jobs during the next four-year parliamentary period, partly through tax reductions aimed at increasing domestic consumption. The government also wants to renew the adult education system, streamline the labour exchange and make it more rewarding to seek work outside of people's home area. The government programme also includes measures to support companies keen to expand. The political opposition and researchers on the left have already accused the government of neglecting the long-term unemployed, who in spite of positive economic development still number 200,000 people. The critics say the government policy will cause deeper sociological rifts in Finnish society.


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