Estonian construction workers and Finnish building sites: a match made in Heaven?

Elina Rimpiläinen, Linda Finell

Finnish construction sites are manned by Estonian construction workers. In the Helsinki city area nearly a third of workers on the sites are Estonian, and the numbers aren’t much smaller in other cities. Meanwhile, Estonian construction sites suffer from a lack of manpower, as the workers flee to collect better wages in Finland.

To complicate the matters further, Estonian workers can fall victim to work-related trafficking. Most of the construction workers come to Finland via various employment agencies and all of the agencies aren’t exactly law-abiding.

 

Estonian construction workers have been a familiar sight on Finnish construction sites since early 2000s and the introduction of the Schengen Agreement. The pull of better wages has brought workers to Finland, where they may be paid as much as three times better than in Estonia.

There are no specific statistics of migrant workers in Finland because of the policy of free moving inside EU. The Finnish Construction union estimates that between one fifth and one third of all employees in the industry are Estonian.

“The Estonian labor force tempts Finnish employers because of the low costs. Only a few employers pay migrant workers as much as the collective agreements advice and foreigners rarely know how to demand more,” Heikki Korhonen, press officer of the Finnish Construction Union says.

Notable part of the workers’ salaries is paid in cash, so that the workers and employers avoid paying taxes.

“The risk of getting caught is small and the punishments are quite insignificant,” Korhonen notes.

The low risks appeal to dishonest entrepreneurs and using migrant labor force is an easy way to make money. People who don’t speak Finnish or know the local laws aren’t likely to blab.

 

Construction Union is worried about the situation. There are both general and private risks when it comes to hiring migrant workers illegally:

  • The increase of unreported employment as a result of paying wages off the books.
  • The increase in acts and threats of violence. There have been several occasions in the past years when an Estonian worker has finally had enough of the lousy treatment and unreceived paychecks and has threatened the employer with violence.
  • Vague safety instructions at construction sites. Many migrant workers don’t understand Finnish, and can’t therefore be aware of our local safety regulations.

Still, Korhonen feels that these issues are only temporary. Estonia is starting to recover from the economic decline of 2008, and after the switch to euro, new apartments and business buildings are planned and sold faster than they can be built. This means that construction workers are desperately needed, and since the Estonians have gone to Finland, constructors are bringing in workers from Ukraine and Russia.

A number of changes have already been made to the Finnish legislation in order to fight unreported employment. One is the introduction of a new tax number system, which means that workers are now required to wear their personal Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) on a badge in order to enter building sites. Last year the taxation system was renewed so that main contractor is now the only one who announces the VAT.

Trafficking, unpaid wages and moonlighting

Moonlighting isn’t the only issue when it comes to Estonian construction workers in Finland.

Silminnäkijä, a Finnish investigative current-affairs programme, recently discovered that some Estonian construction workers are victims of work-related trafficking. According to workers interviewed by the programme, it is fairly common that wages aren’t paid in full and that working conditions at the building sites are lacking. Typically the workers have been promised wages on par with those paid in Finland, when in fact the employer only pays them the minimum Estonian wages. 

Living For Tomorrow, an Estonian human rights group, is currently issuing a complaint to the Finnish police on the trafficking incidents. According to the group, Estonia lacks legislation on work-related trafficking, which makes it difficult to solve the problem on Estonian soil.

In the Silminnäkijä interview, Sirje Blomberg of Living For Tomorrow said that the situation has been slowly getting worse since 2008, when Estonia was hit hard by economic downturn.

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