Employment of foreigners hampered by language barriers and attitudes

By Vellamo Vehkakoski

This is the second of a series of articles on the employment of foreign workers in this country. Links to an earlier article can be found at the end.

Jelena Karlström came originally from the Ukraine, and is now seeking to qualify herself to practice medicine in Finland.
Jelena Karlström came originally from the Ukraine, and is now seeking to qualify herself to practice medicine in Finland.
Insufficient knowledge of Finnish or Swedish is usually the largest obstacle for job-seeking foreigners. Employers cite this excuse even when their real reason for not hiring is skin colour or ethnic background, as admitting to discrimination would of course open the company to a court appearance.
   Many foreigners also lack the skills required by the Finnish job market, but any skills acquired in their homeland might also become outdated in the time it takes for them to learn Finnish, which can take as long as 2-3 years.
   The requisites are not carved in stone, however, and an employer can alter his demands as he pleases. He could tell an unwanted job-seeker that he does not have sufficient language skills, professional skills, or experience for any particular job.
   As yet, there is no really acute shortage of labour in Finland, except perhaps among bus drivers in the Greater Helsinki area. There is not a sufficient shortfall in any other sectors that would push employers to bite the bullet and hire foreigners. Even in information technology, the shortage in expertise is mainly a local one.
   Employers can also claim to be following their clients' wishes in not employing foreigners. The cleaning firm AAA-Siivous recently placed an ad for cleaning staff, and one of their demands was full proficiency in Finnish. They claim that their clients demand fluency in Finnish, and that they have to comply if they want to stay in business. Some of their clients apparently ask straight out if they employ foreigners.
   Sometimes fluency in Finnish is not enough. In the IT sector the candidate also needs proficiency in English. The large IT corporations are equally not likely to open their doors to migrant workers if they require any kind of additional training, regardless of possible employment grants that might come their way for doing so.
   Large companies prefer a ready-made product, says Project Manager Aila Honkanen, who has supervised an employment plan for migrants to find work in SMEs in the metropolitan area, where over half of the immigrants into Finland currently reside.
   Honkanen's two-year Action project ends at the end of this month. It included over 180 professionals from 41 countries. Only about 40 of these found employment in their own field, and slightly less than 100 are in some kind of training. One great achievement was the acceptance of a few Somalis to the Masa-Yards recruitment training as plate welders. Honkanen observes that Somalis are usually treated with open hostility, but the employment of this ethnic group has improved in fields where there is a slight labour shortage.
   By contrast, Asians have had greater success, due to the hard-working reputation of the Vietnamese refugees, who have done well in the electronics industry.
   Citizens from the former Soviet Union have a distinctive problem. They tend to lack initiative and have a fear of authority that can lead to consequential misunderstandings. A quiet employee might be considered to be uninterested in his job or lazy, when in fact the employee feels that he should not go bothering the boss with his insignificant problems and questions, explains Honkanen. Furthermore, many Russians feel that self-promotion is not only humiliating, but akin to lying. This backwardness in coming forward is a definite disadvantage.
   With the exception of the technology industry, finding employment becomes more difficult the higher educated the job-seeker is. Employers value Finnish training and Finnish experience and barely take previously acquired experience into account.
   Employers do not only want a ready-made product, but they also want cheap labour, which can be seen in recent reports on foreigners in the grey or black labour market. Even legally employed foreigners often receive smaller wages than their Finnish colleagues. This was documented amongst Estonians working on Finnish building sites a few years back.
   Regardless of the sector, wages of migrant workers fall below the average levels paid out, at least according to the findings of a recent report by The Family Federation of Finland for the Ministry of Labour.
   Aila Honkanen knows of companies that have applied for work permits for welders scouted directly from Russia or Estonia. When these companies were offered metalworkers of equal job-skills from the immigrant training Action project, they gave evasive answers and said they had no need for new staff, in spite of the fact that this denial of vacancies sat very awkwardly with their having just filed for work permits.

An earlier article examined another side of the issue - the way in which large companies such as Nokia are finding it increasingly necessary to hire skilled staff from abroad. It also contains some links on migration matters from the Ministry of Labour that may be useful to anyone considering a trip up here in search of work.

Finland and foreign workers - red carpet treatment for some (13.5.)

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.5.2000