Labour minister: Law change in works to improve position of foreign workers

Exploited workers don't seek help from Finnish authorities for fear of losing their jobs and residence permits.

Minister of Employment Tuula Haatainen Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

The Finnish government is working on a new set of laws that aim to protect foreign workers' rights, according to the Minister of Employment Tuula Haatainen (SDP).

The minister told Yle’s A-studio on Monday that the law proposal is in the consultation stage and will be circulated for comments.

The law aims to correct the current problem of exploited foreign workers who are hesitant to seek help from Finnish authorities for fear of losing their jobs. When victims of exploitation are fired, they may lose their residence permits, effectively forcing them to leave the country at the same time.

According to Haatainen, the new law would make it possible for a wronged employee to apply for a new job without having to leave Finland.

The topic has been making headlines after an extensive Yle report (in Finnish) published on Sunday cast light on the widespread exploitation of foreign construction workers.

The investigative report found that as many as hundreds of Ukrainian workers have been illegally employed at Finnish construction sites. Many were not paid wages to which they were legally entitled, some were forced to live in substandard conditions and even forced to beg for food and money.

Some of the construction sites investigated in the report, such as the extension of the Espoo West Metro and the Helsinki central library Oodi, have been directly funded by the cities, which has forced decision-makers to react.

Tabloid Helsingin Sanomat has previously reported on the extensive exploitation of foreign labour in the restaurant and cleaning industry, among others.

Criminalising underpayment

Reacting to the Yle report, Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) tweeted on Monday that the exploitation of foreign workers must be stopped by all possible means. Among other measures, she spoke about criminalising underpayment of wages.

Agreeing with Marin’s statement in the A-studio interview, Kimmo Palonen, vice-chairman of the Finnish Construction Association revealed that the construction industry had created a three-tier labour market, where Finnish, EU and third-country workers are treated differently.

“I definitely think sanctions are needed here too. Underpayment should be prevented. We have a separate working group to look into this,” minister Haatainen said.

In July, it was reported that Finland’s services workers' union PAM has proposed the introduction of new measures, including making the underpayment of workers a criminal offence, in response to a report on the injustices and abuses workers are subjected to in Finland’s cleaning industry.