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Inspector "shocked" by restaurant run entirely by asylum seekers working for free

A Finnish labour inspector says she was shocked to find out that a restaurant operator in Lahti had been using exclusively unpaid asylum seekers as staff at the establishment for months.

Hennalan vastaanottokeskus Lahdessa.
The Hennala asylum seeker reception centre in Lahti. File photo. Image: Mika Moksu / Yle

Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland's worker protection inspector Katja-Pia Jenu says that over the years she's become used to seeing deficiencies in workers' contracts and working conditions but nothing could have prepared her for what she learned what took place at a restaurant in Lahti.

The workers, all of them from a local asylum seeker reception centre, kept the establishment operational for months and had been paid nothing.

"The fact that the restaurant's operation was based entirely on free labour was pretty shocking," Jenu said.

The working arrangement had not been set up through the national employment agency TE-Services, but via the Hennala reception centre's unofficial work-practice programme based on the Finnish Red Cross' temporary employment scheme aimed to help asylum seekers integrate more quickly.

She says that the watchdog agency has found similar working arrangements in southern Finland at a few other restaurants, at a barber shop and at least one retail shop.

"These are the only cases which have come to light so far," Jenu says.

She said that she fears these incidents could be just the tip of the iceberg of a broader problem.

Restaurateur denies allegations

The operator of the Lahti restaurant would not comment to Yle other than to deny the allegations.

The Finnish Red Cross temporary internship integration was a pilot programme which started about a year ago in southwest Finland, as a way to help asylum seekers to see what Finnish working life is like. The internships would typically last for three weeks. Last year the Ministry of Employment lauded the programme for its integration efforts.

Hennala reception centre's director Mari Eklund-Kiiski said that the centre would not have agreed to the months-long employment arrangements at the restaurant, saying the work trials the centre approved were only for three weeks and that participants are allowed to participate a single time each.

Despite this asylum seekers had apparently been working for free at the restaurant for months, and had their working agreements renewed when they expired.

Eklund-Kiiski said that the centre advises its clients that they should not consent to working for free, but that many do so voluntarily.

Young men want to work

Two asylum seekers from Iraq explained to Yle the reason why they think asylum seekers would work for free.

"It's due to boredom," asylum seeker Ali Akl said."We're young men and many can't stand to be sitting around at a reception centre relying on others for support."

Akl's roommate at the centre, Mahmoud al-Mashehdani agrees.

Irakilaiset turvapaikanhakijat Ali Akl ja Mahmoud al-Mashedani tekisivät mielellään mitä tahansa työtä. Tärkeintä on olla aktiivinen, miehet sanovat.
Iraqi asylum seekers Ali Akl and Mahmoud al-Mashedani say they're prepared to take on any job available. It's more important to be active in life, they say. Image: Eero Mäntymaa

He says that he biked around town, looking for work at all the local shops and restaurants but had been turned down.

Since then, al-Mashehdani says that he's been volunteering at a local agency for the past year and it's helped to keep the feelings of uselessness at bay.

"I go to sleep, wake up in the morning, go to work and come back in the afternoon. I try to live a normal life. Money is not important to me," al-Mashehdani says.

Some of the asylum seekers working for nothing also hope that their efforts could someday pay off in the form of actually being paid in the future. Another reason some asylum seekers work for nothing could be that they think it will help their asylum decisions.

The labour watchdog's Jenu says that employers may be promising the workers that they'll get a paying job somewhere down the line.

"I haven't discussed this with asylum seekers but I would reckon that's the case," Jenu said.

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