Sixty years to catch up with Western Europe

  • 2002-02-07
  • Kairi Kurm, TALLINN
It will take 50 to 60 years for Estonian pay levels to reach the European Union's average, according to a new survey - and longer if the country remains outside the EU.

"Our calculations are based on the histories of less developed countries that have merged with the European Union and the history of Finland before it formed a joint economic region with Sweden after World War II," said Jaanus Raim, one author of the report produced by the Estonian Institute for Future Studies.

The best pay can be found in sectors where international investors are competing, such as finance, information technology and transit, the study found.

"If you want to know which companies pay well, look at the companies where foreigners work," said Hanno Lindpere, who heads the business consultation department at Pricewaterhouse Coopers Estonia.

The average salary in Estonia is currently 5,000 kroons ($300), or 18 percent of the EU average.

This compares with 0.45 percent of the average in 1992, when the kroon was introduced. Since then pay levels in Estonia have increased by 40 times.

But prices in Estonia have increased faster and are now 60 percent of the EU average. That figure will rise to 80 percent in 10 years if Estonia joins the EU and 75 percent if it does not, the survey found.

From being 1.8 percent of those in the EU in 1992, prices have increased by 30 times in the last 10 years.

According to the survey, salaries will double in 10 years to 36 percent of the EU average if Estonia joins the EU and will be 1.6 times higher, or 29 percent of the EU average if Estonia stays out.

"First, productivity has to grow," said Raim. "Also the business climate and export opportunities should improve before we can expect a rise in income."

Aku Sorainen, spokesman for the International Business Council of Estonia, echoed these comments.

"The competitiveness of society should improve," said Sorainen. "With more training from foreign experts the value of employees will grow, and they will command better wages."

One factor reducing the amount Estonians have to spend is the country's comparatively high social taxes, which are needed to compensate for a lack of pension funds in the Soviet era.

The small pension reserves the Soviet state did have lost their value during monetary reforms in 1992.

As the number of foreign investors increases, competition for employees will force companies to raise salaries, said Raim.

The increased freedom to look elsewhere for work that will come with EU membership, will also increase pressure on employers, he said. Trade unions can also be expected to become more effective in their lobbying for pay increases.

On the other hand, Raim cautioned, foreigners are not always welcome abroad, especially in traditional jobs like shipping.

Lack of knowledge of a local language or customs can also come between migrant workers and success.

In a number of Estonian firms, particularly those engaged in software development, salary levels are already creeping up, with some experts now earning between 40,000 kroons and 50,000 kroons per month, according to Tiina Saar, product manager at the on-line recruitment company CV-Online.

"Estonia has a very small employment market and the demand for certain specialists can be very high," said Sorainen "Wages here fluctuate more than in developed countries.

"An Estonian laborer in the countryside would make some 2,500 kroons a month, but a Finn 30,000 kroons so the difference is more than tenfold. But the difference between the wages of top managers is smaller. A top manager can make 100,000 kroons per month in Estonia and 200,000 kroons in Finland."

Little confidence

But Estonians still suffer from a lack of confidence when it comes to demanding good salaries, she said.

"Some highly educated and well trained people with strong CVs are ready to work for a 7,000 kroon salary," said Saar. "They see it as important to set their foot in the company first and demand a pay rise later."

Those working in the financial sector receive 50 percent of what is common in Finland, said Raim.

"I believe that some of our managers may even outstrip Finnish managers with their incomes," he added. "This shows that the Estonian financial sector is highly developed thanks to foreign investment. I don't think their wages will continue to grow for much longer."

But those earning big salaries are a very small proportion of the population.

Only 0.4 percent of employees earn over 30,000 kroons a month, according to Mare Kusma of the state statistics office.

Consumer goods such as clothes and household products are already 70 percent of the EU price level in Estonia. But entertainment, health care, education and foodstuffs remain relatively cheap.

Real estate prices are also quite low, especially outside Tallinn. A house in Tallinn would cost 40 percent of what a similar house in Finland would cost, said Raim.