TALLINN - Prime Minister Andrus Ansip stepped into the immigrant labor debate last week, saying that rather than bring in workers from other countries Estonia should focus on increasing productivity.
Speaking on the Russian-language Radio 4 on Aug. 18, Ansip said he had observed all the discussion in Estonia about how the country was suffering from a shortage of doctors, rescue workers and bus drivers, many of whom had gone to work in Finland.
Instead of importing working hands from Eastern Europe to fill the yawning labor shortage, the prime minister said businessmen needed to boost productivity.
"The level of productivity in Estonia is only half of the respective indicator in Finland and Sweden," Ansip said. "This is an enormous resource, which we need to make use of here, in Estonia. And only after that can we think about bringing work force here from abroad."
Ansip said that bringing in cheap labor would not help solve the country's economic problems. "We have to pay more attention to education and developing R&D intensive industries," he said.
He stressed that the flip-side of the labor shortage was that the economy had made strides against unemployment.
Six years ago the unemployment rate in Estonia was 14 percent, compared with 4.9 percent today, Ansip said. This means that if six years ago unemployment was one of the country's biggest problems, nowadays the state is busy with new, different tasks.
"Ten years ago there were from 15,000-20,000 Estonians working abroad, and today the same number of 15,000-20,000 are working there 's the numbers aren't increasing," the head of government said.
Meanwhile, the Eesti Paevaleht daily reported that the Estonian Employers' Confederation has been attempting to find political support for an Estonian-Ukrainian accord on labor exchanges. The agreement would allow companies to import thousands of skilled workers from Ukraine and thus alleviate the shortage of labor.
"If we want the economy of Estonia to grow at the current pace, this agreement proves inevitable. Many sectors could develop much faster already now," said Enn Veskimagi, chairman of the Employers' Confederation.
Entrepreneurs are reportedly hoping for an agreement similar to an accord that exists between Ukraine and Portugal, which is said to be functioning well. In Portugal foreign laborers as a rule work on one-year contracts.
Heido Vitsur, adviser to the economy and communications minister, declined to discuss the ministry's position on the planned agreement.
In Veskimagi's words, Estonia urgently needs up to a few thousand highly skilled workers. The shortage of skilled labor is sharpest in shipbuilding, industry and construction.
Experts believe Estonia will experience major problems in 2011-2016, when the number of young people entering the labor market will be 40 percent smaller than now.