Clive (name changed at interviewee's request) has been living in Finland since he graduated in 2012 with a degree in social work specialising in multicultural social work. In a bid to find work in his field, he signed up with his local employment office in early 2013. He had a personal assessment one year later in 2014, duly applied for positions recommended and attended a career coaching programme at a well-known adult education institution.
In spite of his qualifications and previous experience working in the field in the UK, Clive still had not landed a position after three years. He was then transferred to Helsinki region’s Duuri programme, which focuses on serving the long-term unemployed, or individuals considered to be in danger of falling into long-term unemployment.
Although he tried to play by the rules, Clive wasn’t entirely happy with the services he was receiving. For one thing, he grew frustrated when his case workers directed him to apply for positions for which he was not qualified and was therefore hardly likely to get.
"One job was a kindergarten teacher and they specifically asked for a teacher qualification. And I contacted the employer and [they] said that they had four specific requirements," he explained.
Clive said that he immediately contacted the employment office and informed them that it would be pointless to apply. When he didn’t in fact apply, the unemployment office decided to discontinue payment of his basic unemployment allowance. The basic unemployment allowance paid out by the Finnish Social Insurance Institution Kela is around 700 euros before tax.
No way around sanctions, but workers are people too
Services Director of Uusimaa region employment services Mika Salo told Yle News that decisions to sanction jobseekers who fail to apply for recommended vacancies are based on Finnish law – and that there’s no way around it.
"According to the law people coming to the TE [employment] office have three months to refuse jobs they are not eligible for. But after three months you no longer have the right. It’s the law. After that every person must apply for every job you are offered," Salo explained.
Salo added that employment officials usually ensure that they provide jobseekers with vacancy lists that are relevant to their background and training. If jobseekers find that irrelevant suggestions are coming their way, all it takes is a call and some negotiation with their employment officers to find common ground. But he did admit that the scenario that Clive described is not improbable.
"The law of employment benefits means it could happen, we are people too, there may be pressure on an officer to offer a job, even if the applicant doesn’t have the qualifications and they must be offered something. According to the law we should offer positions to applicants," Salo added.
Employer attitudes slow to change
Clive says he’s also unhappy with the quality of the career counseling he received. On many occasions, he was urged to get a bar license or a hygiene pass so he could find work in the restaurant or catering sectors – areas in which he has no training or experience. He was also advised to seek work as a cleaner, with liaison workers pointing out that he would not need very strong Finnish language skills for such positions.
"Cleaning work sometimes requires people to handle strong chemicals and if they are labeled in Finnish, that might pose a risk,” Clive pointed out.
Salo said that for most foreigners looking for work in Finland, language is ultimately the key to opening the door to employment. He said that’s because many professions require language skills for security or safety reasons – precisely as Clive outlined.
Nevertheless, the service director admitted that apart from language, some employers are reluctant to employ non-Finns.
"I believe in general that good experiences will get the message across. It takes time and we are trying to push the message that foreigners are good. We have programmes, and some large employers will hire foreigners, but work is still needed on some attitudes," he remarked, adding that the situation has nonetheless improved over the past 20 years.
Very high immigrant unemployment rate
However for jobseekers like Clive those observations offer little comfort. He said he's looking into filing a complaint, but noted that he's tied to the unemployment because the unemployment allowance had been his sole source of income.
"I think I was better off by myself rather than going to the TE [employment] office. You fall into that because you are claiming unemployment allowance. If I had the choice not to fall on the TE office I wouldn’t."
The latest unemployment data for the Uusimaa region show that Clive is far from alone. According to Salo, as of October 24, there were some 16,000 foreigners looking for jobs in Uusimaa. The overall unemployment rate in the region was 11 percent. For foreigners, it was more than double that at 26.9 percent.
"It’s still a problem and there is still a lot of work to do," Salo concluded.