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"I'm broken, depressed": Foreigners struggle to find work in Finland

Immigrants job hunting in Finland say they face a language barrier, as well as discrimination with respect to pay and contracts.

Close-up of two people shaking hands.
Close-up of two people shaking hands. Image: Yle News / Mark B. Odom

Yle News’ All Points North podcast recently tackled the issue of why many migrants face difficulty breaking into the Finnish job market. Contributors came forward with accounts of pay and contract discrimination as well as inadequate access to Finnish language courses.

According to the latest data available from the OECD, the unemployment rate in the foreign-born population in Finland at the end of 2017 was 15.8 percent. In neighbouring Sweden, the jobless rate among the non-Swedish population was 15.4 percent for the same period.

Drilling down further, the city of Helsinki reported that at the end of 2016, the unemployment rate among immigrants in the capital was 24.1 percent, compared to 10 percent among Finnish-background residents.

Both Eve Kyntäjä of the SAK, Finland’s largest union confederation and Taina Susiluoto, a director of the private sector employers’ lobby group EK agreed that foreigners in Finland are an untapped resource in many parts of the country, despite the roadblocks they face breaking into the workforce.

"The moment I saw you I knew it was a no"

One woman from Kenya who has completed multiple study programmes in Finland reached out with her account of discrimination in the recruitment process. She also outlined her experiences being hired on chained "work trial" practices by an employer whom she says essentially used her as vacation cover for permanent employees.

Jane*, East Africa region: I have a degree in Nursing from a Finnish institution. I would evaluate my Finnish level to be C2. I have a Diploma in Personal and Fitness Training. Now also doing some open university studies at a Finnish University that will lead to a Masters in Public and Global Health. I have sent several job applications in search of saairanhoitaja (nursing) and lähihoitaja (practical nursing) jobs. Most are not responded to. Some have called to ask about my nationality and when I say Kenya, they have said, “Sorry, you have a nice CV but we need a Finnish national.”

One invited me for an interview and openly told me that because I am foreign, they are not sure whether or not they can trust me and for that reason they could not hire me.

I opted to do a “työkokeilu” (work trial) for free if it would better my chances. I got a place in the beginning, they promised to hire me after the work trial. Little did I know that they just wanted me to replace their summer workers. Towards the end of the trial when I asked the boss if she could hire me, her response was “You are a good worker and we love your work. We would want you to do three more months of work trial then I will take you to another unit and you do another six months of work trial there.”

I also opted for a personal trainer job. My first job interview was the saddest. When she (employer) called me inside for the interview, her first statement was “You have the best CV and I have never seen such a combination but the moment I saw you I straightaway knew that it was a no. Our customers are Finnish and will not be happy to have a black personal trainer.

I have very good qualifications, and I am willing to work and do everything I can to get a job, but it seems like the Finnish job market is not ready for me. I would like to work and give back to society for the education they have given me. I am broken, depressed.

Two-tier job market already exists

Eve Kyntäjä, an immigration and integration specialist with the SAK, told APN that illegal unpaid internships and work practice stints are becoming increasingly common, not only among migrant workers but the native population as well. However she noted that immigrants are more vulnerable to these practices because of inadequate Finnish language skills and ignorance of their rights.

Kyntäjä acknowledged that Finland may already have a two-tiered labour market, where immigrant workers are mostly occupied in low-wage sectors such as construction and services.

"According to our experiences and several reports and studies there is already this two-tiered labour market in Finland. And much evidence of not getting the correct wage, or getting cash, not being paid [to] a bank account. Then, there are many illegal terminations of employment contracts, no compensation for holidays kept, and of course the problem is that immigrant workers who don’t speak Finnish are in a vulnerable position," Kyntäjä observed.

Taina Susiluoto of the EK pointed out that employers have a duty to inform workers of their rights.

"It is a responsible employer’s job to tell the staff their rights. I think in Finland we are at a good level in the labour market in this sense. If somebody does wrong, it’s wrong regardless if it’s a native Finn or an immigrant that’s the object of it. We have an open society where most of these things will come out. People should speak out and contact somebody if they have a problem like this," she declared.

Nobody speaks "book Finnish"

Another contributor told APN that his efforts to learn Finnish were stymied by insufficient and inadequate tuition in Finnish when he was studying and had more time to learn. As a father, he said that he can no longer devote as much time and attention to learning the language. He called on institutions to do more to help students learn Finnish and integrate.

Robert*, Germany: I arrived in Finland in 2009, as most people, for a master’s. I had finished my BA in my home country where I was also a language teacher, a translator and an interpreter – in other words, a very active student and freelancer. I signed up for Finnish lessons, because I wanted to stay here after completing my studies, What was available was in total two or three hours of language courses a week, and it was "book Finnish”"to boot. Not only was that not enough time to actually learn the language, but what we were learning was mostly useless because nobody speaks that version of the language at all.

After completing my studies I got a PhD position, but the workload made it hard to continue learning Finnish. Now I’ve finished my PhD but I’m also a father which leaves me with even less time to learn it. My point? Nobody noticed or took advantage of my willingness to learn Finnish when I had the time and energy. Now that I’m older and have more responsibilities and am entering the job market after academia and it turns out being fluent in Finnish is a must – obviously since we’re in Finland.

There is a pretty big disconnect between the integration process Finland expects foreigners to engage in, and the resources put and interest shown – in this case by universities and maybe some government offices – in making sure foreigners can actually integrate.

Learn Finnish or lose benefits?

The SAK’s Eve Kyntäjä said that many international students in local universities are represent great potential for Finland. "One reason they have problems getting jobs after graduating is they can’t speak Finnish and there aren’t many workplaces where you can work with no Finnish at all. It would be useful to provide international students with more Finnish courses --and Swedish. Now it’s at a minimum," she added.

The EK’s Taina Susiluoto said that the EK has proposed tying benefits to proficiency in Finnish. "We at the EK have suggested that we should make as a criteria for benefits in Finland the fact that you learn the Finnish language, not that you go to a course. It would not be enough that you go to a course but that you actually know the language. I think in terms of integration that would be an important new step," she declared.

However she later clarified that this proposal would be applied to asylum seekers granted residency in Finland.

Foreigners paid less than Finns

One contributor from the Latin American region raised the issue of pay discrimination faced by some of his colleagues, a situation that he said led to them leaving the country. He endorsed the view of others who pointed to the lack of adequate Finnish language courses for students pursuing advanced degrees.

Paul*, Argentina: I’m from Latin America and my research group is quite international. Working in academia in Finland is very nice and there are several opportunities I took advantage of. However I have to say that people in my faculty and related fields have been leaving Finland because they have been discouraged in their work environment. In some cases the pay given to foreigners is less than what is given to Finns.

Another reason is because social integration is hard. I find it strange how some researchers point out the need for internationalisation and the interest that foreign researchers stay in Finland yet at the same time whenever Master’s or PhD students come to Finland there’s no intensive Finnish courses. I think this is a missed opportunity. There should be more emphasis on teaching spoken Finnish or Finnish for business to those of us who come here to study or for research.

Majority of foreign students leave Finland

Susiluoto noted that every year Finland trains up to 3,000 foreign students while the vast majority -- 2,000 -- leave after completing their studies. She said that the EK is now partnering with the City of Helsinki and universities in the region to match graduates with firms.

"We’re working with Helsinki City together with the universities in this region to try to change the internal processes within the universities so that when we have students coming [from] overseas to Finland, immediately when they are here in the beginning, we ask if they are interested in staying in Finland and finding a job. And then we at EK try to tell the companies. So we are matchmaking and trying to make things better because this has been a problem in the past."

Meanwhile Kyntäjä said that many graduates of foreign institutions run into obstacles getting their qualifications recognised in Finland, a problem that she noted also affects Finns returning from studying abroad, even from neighbouring Sweden.

"There are big problems regarding recognition of foreign qualifications and diplomas. If you can’t work according to your qualification which you have got in your own country it’s very frustrating. There is also some evidence regarding returning Finns coming from Sweden and other countries, who have experienced problems finding a job in Finland. There is the issue of losing people who have international experience and international competence."

*Names changed to protect the privacy of the contributors.

Edit: Updated at 12.04pm on 12 February to remove certain details about one contributor to protect the individual's privacy.

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