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"Applying for unemployment benefits was never an option" — Foreigners wary of registering as jobless

Foreigners in Finland say they fear registering as unemployed could cost them their residence permits.

Mies työskentelee rakennustyömaalla.
Some 30,000 foreign construction workers are employed in Finland, according to the Confederation of Finnish Construction Industries (RT). Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

Foreigners laid off during the pandemic have been cautious about seeking jobless benefits compared to their Finnish counterparts. Many fear they will lose their right to stay in the country, though officials claim this is not the case since rules were relaxed in July.

Like many others in the hospitality sector, Hanna,* a 23-year-old from Kosovo lost her job at Helsinki restaurant in March. But Hanna didn’t register with her local TE employment office to apply for benefits.

"I was afraid seeking benefits would hurt my chances of extending my residence permit later on," she said.

Some 20,000 foreigners in Finland have been granted work-based residence permits. In many cases, an entire family’s right to stay in the country hinges on one parent’s job.

In 2019, Migri granted 4,800 first-time work-based residence permits. These types of visas are usually valid for a year.

Residence tied to job

Two years ago, Susie,* a Russian national, lost her job in marketing.

"Going to the TE employment office just wasn’t an option. I figured that if the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) finds out that I was fired, they'd call me up straight away and ask why I’m still here," she explained.

Susie’s worries weren't completely unfounded.

"A residence permit can be cancelled if the grounds for which it was granted no longer exist. This can mean a situation where a job ends and the permit was based on employment in Finland," said Anna Hyppönen, who heads Migri’s permits and citizenship unit, about the agency's pre-pandemic practices.

This week the All Points North podcast discussed foreigners' reluctance to claim benefits. You can listen to the full podcast via the embedded player here or via Yle Areena, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed.

Story continues after audio

Audio: Yle News

Applicants looking to renew their residence permits have had to demonstrate they have sufficient funds to live in Finland. For single applicants this means a monthly income stream of 1,000 euros.

Marina,* a programmer from Russia, said she has been laid off twice. She told Yle it was unreasonable for people losing their jobs to be dealt the double blow of fearing they will have to leave the country.

Migri declined to provide exact figures on how often they turn down residence permit extensions owing to an applicant’s job loss. This year the agency has granted 2,833 extensions and turned down 626 applications from people wanting to stay in the country.

Migri relaxes rules

Following the wave of layoffs this spring, Migri in July announced temporary or permanent layoffs lasting up to six months would not negatively impact residence permits.

Applicants would be able to meet Migri’s income requirement by showing they receive the basic unemployment benefit of 724 euros per month. This form of government assistance is available to foreigners living in Finland who have registered as job seekers with TE offices.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment (TEM) said it was aware of foreigners’ worries about losing their job-linked residence permits.

"Foreigners have a higher threshold than Finns for seeking unemployment benefits," said Olli Sorainen, a senior ministerial adviser at TEM, adding that foreigners are sometimes unaware of their rights.

"Of course it’s wrong in the sense that the benefits system is being underutilised," he explained.

Sorainen said some foreigners’ knowledge gap regarding the Finnish welfare system as well as their own rights was putting them in a vulnerable position.

Foreigners see fewer job losses

The share of Finnish job seekers has grown by 45 percent since the pandemic began while the corresponding figure for foreigners is 34 percent.

Antti Kaihovaara, a specialist at TEM, said these numbers were unusual, because in other European countries unemployment had grown more among foreigners than majority populations.

However he speculated one reason may be that foreigners in Finland had a higher base unemployment rate to begin with---12.5 percent compared to 6.5 percent among Finns, which is a bigger gap than in many other EU states.

*Hanna (not her real name) and the other foreign job seekers quoted in this article did not want their identities disclosed owing to the sensitive nature of this story.

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