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Finland moves to ease restrictions on non-EU workers

More job opportunities are opening up for immigrants in Finland as officials ease restrictions on the types of work where EU and EEA citizens are given priority.

Työntekijöitä rakennustyömaalla.
Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Last year, officials in southern Finland's Uusimaa region loosened rules on hiring non-EU and -EEA workers to ease a labour shortage in the construction sector. Now, they are looking at expanding the measure to other industries.

With a few exceptions, it is standard hiring practice in Finland to prioritise hiring job applicants who are citizens of an EU member state or a country that is a part of the European Economic Area.

Local employment offices can, however, ease restrictions on the basis of labour availability, in effect dropping the priority requirement approving work permits for non-EU and -EEA migrants in fields where there is a shortage of potential employees from EU and EEA countries.

For example, in April officials in the Pirkanmaa region rolled back the "labour availability consideration" requirement for jobs in metals and engineering, as well as building construction and heavy earthwork. Last year in the Uusimaa region house builders, carpenters, painters and plumbing installers were also taken off the list of jobs that prioritise EU and EEA employees. In January, those exceptions were expanded to include roofers, plasterers and insulation installers.

Red tape and shortage of Finnish IT workers

For software engineer Hussein Parsaiyan establishing a career in Finland didn't get off to an easy start. The first hurdle was the language.

"Even though I passed all of the employer's competence tests, I didn't get the job," Parsaiyan relates. "Later a Finnish friend who works in the company told me that they only employ Finns. I don't quite understand that since the working language in this field is generally English."

Then, bureaucracy stepped in. Parsaiyan signed a contract with the Helsinki-based Smarp IT company. But, because he had not yet completed his university degree, he was required to prove his competence and the importance of his work contribution to the local employment office.

"I had to fill out a [TE] office form. Once the employment office had approved the application, I had to wait for a decision from the Immigration Service. I waited 4-5 months for my first residence permit," Parsaiyan explains.

Hussein Parsaiyan is now in his third year as a software engineer for Smarp. It was a close thing, though. The frustration of dealing with red tape nearly convinced him to pack his bag and look for a job somewhere else in Europe.

"I thought that if I get a job somewhere else, then it's Finland's loss," says Parsaiyan.

Item continues after photo.

Hossein Parsayiyan
Software engineer Hussein Parsaiyan says he's glad he decided to stay in Finland even though it was far from easy at first. Image: Markku Pitkänen / Yle

The system of labour availability consideration most often poses a barrier to blue-collar workers who want to take up jobs in Finland, but generally does not apply so much well-paid and well-educated specialists such as software engineers.

However, the head of HR for Smarp, Poola Isomäki, says that the father away that non-EU workers people come from, the more difficult it is to hire them. Slowdowns in the recruiting process caused by bureaucracy are poison to companies in the IT sector, which is suffering from a dearth of skilled employees.

Smarp has 60 employees from around 20 different countries. Its plan is to double staff over the next 18 months, but suitable Finnish candidates are all but impossible to find.

"You just don't find them walking around. Nearly all the Finns already have jobs. It's difficult to recruit from other EU countries because they need more too," says Isomäki. "It hasn't always been easy for us, and I have colleagues who have spent 6-9 months getting work permits for employees from outside the EU."

Restriction a roadblock to economic growth

It is not only the IT sector that is plagued by a labour shortage. With the economy heating up, there is a greater need for workers from bulldozer operators to restaurant staff. To prevent the labour availability consideration system from becoming an impediment to economic growth, it is being dismantled profession-by-profession.

"Permit procedures should be flexible and adapt to labour market conditions. We are now moving into a situation in which foreign recruitment should be made easier," argues Olli Sorainen, Senior Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.

Completely eliminating the labour availability consideration is, however, a political hot potato. Political parties and labour unions that have traditionally advocated for workers' interests are defending the system while employers' interest groups are pressing to see it abandoned.

Right now, the most vocal demands are for its elimination. On Monday, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä expressed the hope that discussions could start during the term of the present coalition on easing work-based immigration, despite known opposition from Blue Reform government coalition partners.

Sorainen points to a need to keep the issue in proportion. Annually, around 7,000 - 8,000 resident permits are issued to people from outside the EU to work in Finland. That is a very small fraction of the country's total labour force.

"How much would the number of new permits increase if this barrier to entering the job market were eliminated? Realistically, one could think that it could go up by 50%, so then we are talking about 10,000 to 14,000 new workers. As a part of the total labour market, that's not much," says Olli Sorainen.

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