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Sting uncovers underpayment of foreign workers at Helsinki construction site

A lobby group found that firms working on a construction site in Helsinki violated collective bargaining agreements.

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Image not related to the cases cited in this report. Image: Mikko Koski / Yle

Three subcontractors were found to have underpaid dozens of foreign labourers working on a construction site in Helsinki’s Töölö district, according to The Finnish Construction Trade Union.

The organisation said the infringements concerned renovation work taking place on the Chydenia building to prepare it for use by the city’s adult education programme.

The lobby group said that it had imposed a ban on the companies over the findings on Monday, however two of the firms had since compensated affected workers for the shortfall in their pay.

Russians, East Europeans affected

The union said that a total of 50 workers had been underpaid and that the group included Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians. It added that some of the firms that short-changed workers were registered in Finland, while others were based in Baltic countries.

Trade union deputy head Kimmo Palonen said that workers’ pay had been below the lowest level set in the industry’s collective bargaining agreement. For example, according to information gathered from Estonian tax authorities, some workers earned a gross salary of between 1,000 and 1,300 euros monthly.

"That’s about half below the watermark that should be paid according to the collective bargaining agreement," Palonen declared.

Earlier this year the organisation also placed a ban on a few other firms in the sector for the same practice.

In September Yle reported on a similar case when collective bargaining agreement violations were discovered during refurbishment work on Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium.

A few weeks ago, the Southwest Finland Regional Administrative Authority also said that labour inspectors found that many immigrant workers were being paid less than their Finnish peers.

Subcontractors obliged to abide by industry rules

Sweden-based construction services firm NCC, is the main contractor for the Töölö refurbishment project. Head of renovations Vesa Ahlroos said that NCC agreements with subcontractors obligate them to abide by the industry’s collective bargaining agreement.

“You do lose trust in the kinds of subcontractors that promise to do certain things and then doesn’t do them,” he remarked.

Ahlroos noted that the main contractor reviews subcontractors’ agreements, but he added that they do not specifically mention worker compensation. He pointed out for example, that they do not provide any information about how much individual workers are paid.

"We have nearly 100 workers on the construction site. It would be an impossible task for us to constantly monitoring them," he continued.

Union pushing for stricter sanctions

Meanwhile the construction trade union said that there should be tougher sanctions for companies that violate collective bargaining agreements.

"The current situation is that [negligent] firms deal with things the way an honest business would. That’s not a sanction. Maybe criminalising underpayment or wages would be one method," Palonen commented.

According to Ahlroos, the subcontractors that were found to have shorted workers’ paychecks were immediately banished from the construction site. Once they rectified the situation, the main contractor had a discussion with them.

"They can’t come here before they sort things out. Then we discuss whether or not they can come after that. Ending the cooperation is one form of sanction," he concluded.

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