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Ukrainians lead applications as officials ease rules for non-EEA builders in southern Finland

Moves to facilitate the hiring of construction workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) in the Uusimaa region have not so far led to a dramatic upsurge of work permit applications. Such applications are up by around one fifth this year, with Ukrainians and Russians leading the pack -- but officials say that is partly due to the general economic recovery.

So far Ukrainian builders seem to be most interested in working in Finland. Image: Mika Kanerva

Last spring officials in the heavily-populated Uusimaa region of southern Finland made it easier for companies in the construction sector to hire workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) for certain tasks. However the move by the Uusimaa Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY Centre) has not seen a major influx of foreign builders. The number of job applications in Uusimaa is up by roughly 20 percent so far this year.

Firms in the cleaning, hospitality, logistics and construction sectors cannot hire people from outside the EEA unless they can prove they cannot find any unemployed residents of Finland to fill the positions. The 31-member EEA includes all EU and Nordic states plus Liechtenstein. EEA citizens do not need work permits in Finland.

Unions oppose looser rules

Last week five MPs, mostly from opposition parties, proposed moves to make it easier for companies throughout Finland to recruit workers from outside the EEA. Unions have attacked the proposal.

Kari Koivisto of the Uusimaa TE office (employment office) says that some firms in the building trade have begun recruiting non-EEA workers.

The rising number of applicants includes rejected asylum seekers who came in the surge of late 2015 and are now seeking work-based residence permits.

Hospitality sector next?

The ELY Centre is considering lifting similar restrictions in the hotel and restaurant branch next.

"There seem to be unemployed people in this sector, but employers say they have a hard time finding staff," Koivisto says.

Olli Sorainen, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, suspects that the overall return to economic growth after many years of stagnation is the biggest reason for the rise in job applications, which began back in 2015.

He notes that the rule requiring companies to try to find residents of Finland to fill positions has been lifted before on a regional basis when firms complain of labour shortages.

Ukrainians lead the pack

Between January and September, TE offices in Uusimaa have processed more than 6,100 work permit decisions, with nearly 5,200 being partially or fully approved. Last year TE offices partly or fully approved more than 7,000 applications out of around 8,200.

The largest group of non-EEA work permit applicants this year are from Ukraine, totalling more than 1,400. Nearly 900 Russians have applied during the same nine-month period.

TE offices have also processed more than 300 applications each from the Philippines, Vietnam, China and Thailand.