Sunday, July 11, 2010

Migrant Workers in Finland: The Working Poor?

Although Finland has failed to ratify the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and All Members of Their Families, Article 2 of the Convention defines a migrant worker as "a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national."

The quest for a better life has forced many people to travel to unlikely destinations. The Nordic country of Finland is located in Northern Europe and boasts of a population of 5.4 million people. Until recently, Finland was not a popular destination for migrant workers - partly due to the fact that the country was a "latecomer to industrialisation." Today, like other highly industrialised economies, Finland is grappling with immigration, and the immigration debate is contentious - to the extent that the Immigration Minister faced death threats. The negative tone of the immigration debate has far reaching damaging consequences on a vulnerable group of people - migrant workers. The question is: are migrant workers in Finland the working poor?

Roughly defined, the "working poor" refers to people who are employed but live below or slightly above the poverty line. It is worth mentioning that the poverty line, according to the European Working Conditions Observatory is defined as 60% of the equivalent median income.

In Finland, many migrant workers from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe - hold full-time jobs but live near, on, or slightly below the poverty line. This is the case because many are employed in unskilled jobs - menial jobs like cleaning, newspaper delivery, dish washing, you name it - irrespective of academic qualification. It is extremely rare to find immigrants employed in relatively high-paying jobs in the field of medicine, banking, law, etc. in the Nordic country. As if this is not enough, they face untold exploitation from unscrupulous employers - employers who mostly pay migrant workers a minimum wage for equal work.

Immigration critics blame the plight of migrant workers in Finland on language barriers and lack of skills that would allow migrant workers compete in the job market. The recent economic melt-down ushered in job cuts - as another justification for the plight of migrant workers in Finland.

On the other hand, migrant workers and immigration advocates blame the system. They argue that Finnish authorities are more interested in securing borders than protecting the rights of the many migrant workers legally residing in Finland. Consequently, many migrant workers are left at the mercy of employers. Administrative bottlenecks on issues that affect the wellbeing of immigrants, have not gone unnoticed.

Having lived in Finland long enough to have an opinion, if you ask me - there is no denying that migrant workers in Finland are arguably the working poor. Contrary to what anti-immigration proponents in Finland think, the immigrant community is made up of hardworking individuals who just happen to be at the wrong place - a place where they are forced to work two or three menial jobs, in a bid to rise above the poverty line. Many are educated, many speak the language, but somehow find it extremely difficult to integrate into Finnish society.

It is true that well-paid jobs are available for immigrants - immigrants from countries in the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA), and it is also true that  a majority of immigrants from other parts of the world - predominantly Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe rarely enjoy this privilege - they constitute the working poor in Finland.

The authorities in Finland should pay more attention to the plight of migrant workers. Migrant workers make an enormous contribution to the Finnish economy, and reserve the right to equal treatment, decent work and a decent life.

*Photo: YLE.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with all you said in this article. I have been in Finland for 2 and a half years and I still feel like and outsider, nothing worthy of their effort, I have been working only as a dishwasher and I am studying a Master degree. They say they never have jobs for immigrants because of the language. I think that is racism, as well as laziness and discrimination, in other places around the world the language is not a problem for a company to include high quality workers.


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