Finland protects its labor market

  • 2001-11-01
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - The Finnish government has decided to impose a transition period limiting the free movement of labor from Estonia for the first two years of its membership in the European Union.

The Federation of Finnish Trade Unions called for an even longer transition period of seven to 10 years, saying that Finland was poorly prepared for the EU's eastward enlargement, the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported.

Estonian researchers and officials reacted with alarm to the Finnish initiative, saying fears of an influx of Estonian migrants are unfounded.

Matti Viialainen, the federation's deputy director, said "It has not been officially decided in Finland whether two years is enough. We could use the two plus three plus two system, which allows countries to decide at the end of each period whether the transition period would be prolonged. If the influence of the black economy and unemployment levels decrease in Estonia and adequate safety rules are in put in place Finland could go for two years."

While the federation issued 2,646 work permits to Estonians between May and August this year many Estonians work for short periods using tourist visas, said Viialainen. He estimated that about 1,000 Finns currently work in Estonia, mostly in senior management positions.

According to a poll conducted by the trade unions' federation this spring, many young Estonians, especially the unemployed and members of the country's Russian-speaking minority would like to work in Finland when Estonia joins the EU.

The research showed that 24 percent of Estonian speakers and 38 percent of Russian speakers would like to take jobs in Finland. This means that about 400,000 Estonians expect to work in Finland at least occasionally.

But this finding was rejected by Andrus Saar, head of the Estonian social research company Saar Poll. "Four hundred thousand is absurd," he said. "The research can be interpreted in different ways. The number of Estonians who would go to work in Finland could be somewhere between 30,000 and 35, 000. I am sure that most people questioned have never even thought about it before. Finland is not the most popular destination and very few people here speak Finnish."

He added that only 35 percent to 40 percent of Estonians had been to Finland.

Those questioned in the poll said they would like to work in the service sector, particularly as shop assistants, or in the nursing and technology sectors. More than a quarter of those questioned said they would accept lower wages than those paid to Finns, while 57 percent said they would insist on receiving the same as Finns.

About 40 percent questioned said they would like to work illegally without paying taxes, Helsingin Sanomat reported.

Other research carried out by the Finnish Labor Ministry this autumn suggested there would be a much smaller increase in migration to Finland. It said the current rate of 700 to 800 people migrating annually would increase to 1,500.

The paper wrote demand in Finland was only for highly educated individuals, particularly for those who had information technology skills. The paper also wrote that average wages were 3.3 times higher in Finland than in Estonia.

"Free movement of labor could increase the number of Estonians who work in Finland from Monday to Friday, but reside in Estonia," researcher Kari Hietala was quoted as saying in the article.

Hietala said that the difference in wage levels between the two countries would gradually decrease due to Estonia's low birth rate, which would lead to a labor shortage and rising wages.

So far Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands have announced they will not resort to imposing transition periods to lessen the impact of labor movement from new EU member states.

According to Taavi Toom, spokesman at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a list of countries which want such transition periods has yet to emerge, partly because the relevant chapter in negotiations with the EU has not been closed.

"Some countries may be added to the list prior to accession," said Toom. "There are a number of countries that would like to have bilateral agreements on this matter and a few countries that have requested a transition period for future members of the EU. We should understand the fears of the member states and help them overcome them. The present situation shows that the membership would not have a big influence on immigration."

The experiences of Spain's and Portugal's accession to the EU suggests that the fear of immigration from new member states is unfounded. After Germany's re-unification 7.3 percent of east Germans moved west, despite earlier polls predicting migration levels five to six times higher.

According to research carried out by Saar Poll last December most 15- to 64-year-olds who wanted to work abroad did not have a clear vision of what this would involve and also had low foreign language proficiency. Of those polled, 42 percent were housewives, pensioners, students or unemployed and 84 percent wanted a temporary job for just a couple of months.

"In general most of the job seekers were dreaming or wanted a short term job for self-improvement and earning money," said Andrus Saar, the research company's director. "The opening of borders will have a relatively small effect on immigration. It just creates an additional possibility and decreases the problems faced by most Estonians living abroad today. There is no basis for fearing that all the interested people would rush to work abroad when Estonia gets EU membership."

He added that it was important for Estonian youth to gain work experience abroad. "The EU should not limit Estonia's development opportunities. How else should the former socialist countries get know-how from abroad?"

Those interested in moving abroad to find work are motivated by a desire for a better salary (96 percent) and want to broaden their horizons (87 percent). Some 78 percent said they would like to improve their skills, 65 percent referred to unemployment in Estonia and 20 percent said they were disappointed in Estonia.

The biggest obstacles to migration were their immediate families and relatives (79 percent) and lack of language skills (63 percent).

The most popular destination among those questioned was Finland (49 percent), followed by Germany (47 percent), Sweden (37 percent) and England (33 percent).

Estonia's labor market has been open to the members of the EU since 1997. The latest data shows that 867 EU citizens work in Estonia and 15,460 Estonian citizens live in EU countries, 3,000 of whom work.