Friday, February 22, 2013

A case for anonymous job applications and workplace diversity in Finland

There's a glaring lack of ethnic, religious, cultural or racial diversity in Finland's professional workforce. Many workplaces in Finland, including non-governmental and governmental organizations in the field of human rights and development are homogeneous - mostly made up of white Finns. The City of Helsinki has launched a pilot procedure that could equalize chances for job applicants and ensure diversity in the workplace.

The City of Helsinki has started accepting anonymous job applications.

According to Yle, the purpose of the process is to ensure that the employer focuses solely on the skills and experience of job seekers, rather than on gender, age or origin. The anonymous application process is being run in the hiring of a new project chief for the City of Helsinki's Youth Department.

Foreign name

An experiment by a foreign student in Sweden revealed that job applicants with foreign names are less likely to find work. For the experiment, the student printed 40 CVs. He put his real name on 20 and used a common Swedish name on 20. The CVs with his real name got no interview offers while 13 out of the 20 CVs with a Swedish name yielded job interviews. This shows that employers don't focus solely on the skills and experience of job seekers.

In my opinion, the homogeneous workforce in offices, banks, non-governmental organizations and state institutions in Finland is no coincidence. The lack of diversity has something to do with [discriminatory] recruitment practices and stereotypes against minority groups.

Restaurant experience

I have had the honor of working professionally in offices in Finland. From my experience, I can say without fear of contradiction that there's lack of diversity in workplaces. There's some degree of gender diversity at least in terms of hiring, but diversity on other grounds such as race, ethnicity or origin is glaringly lacking.

A good time to check diversity in offices for instance is during lunch. Many organizations provide employees with meal tickets, hence workers go to restaurants to eat. I have worked in two offices in Helsinki and I've had lunch during break in numerous restaurants. I've never seen someone who looks like me - a black African - having lunch with colleagues from an office. Maybe workers from backgrounds other than Finnish (and Swedish) don't go for lunch, but their noticeable absence in restaurants during lunch speaks volumes about the state of diversity in workplaces.

The absence of visible minorities working in offices doesn't mean they are unqualified to do so. Many are qualified and apply for positions in their field of studies, but they are forced by circumstances to work jobs that don't match their education and skills. Many have resigned to low-paying jobs.

A survey by Service Union United PAM shows that nearly half of the union's foreign members work jobs that don't match their education and training. Most of them work as cleaners.

No illusion

I welcome the fact that the City of Helsinki is now accepting anonymous job applications. Being anonymous might equalize chances for all applicants. Qualified applicants with varying backgrounds might be employed or at least invited for job interviews.

I have no illusion that the project by Helsinki City will immediately lead to diversity in the workplace. An applicant might be invited for an interview, but disqualified for questionable reasons when s/he shows up for interview.

Employers need a change in mindset. They need to understand that people can get the job done irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, language or origin.

Accepting anonymous job applications in my opinion is a good place to start the journey towards diversity in professional workplaces in Finland.

Different backgrounds and results

According to Helsinki City HR Director Hannu Tulensalo, the city wants to find out whether accepting anonymous applications will have different results from the traditional recruitment practice. The intention is to hire people with varying backgrounds.

I'm confident that the result will be different. The anonymous job application process should be extended to all departments. The success of the project shouldn't be measured only in one vacancy or department. Other employers, both governmental and non-governmental, should copy the project and start accepting anonymous applications.

*Photo: eHow.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Slave wages for migrant workers from Cameroon in Sweden's forestry sector

I have read about countless human rights violations, but few have hit very close to home like the story of my compatriots, Cameroonians, lured to Sweden by fraudulent work contracts and the promise of decent work and decent pay only to find themselves in an abusive situation of exploitation for labour purposes in the hands of a rogue Swedish employer in the forestry sector.

In its 2012 Global Estimate on Forced Labour, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally - working jobs which they were forced or deceived into and which they cannot leave freely. A group of Cameroonians deceived into migrating to Sweden to plant trees fall in this category.

A report by Svt tells the story of migrant workers from Cameroon misled by a false contract of employment to travel to Talvelsjö, a locality in Umeå in northern Sweden - where they were forced by circumstances to engage in back-breaking labour for slave wages. The men were allegedly deceived and exploited by a Swedish man identified as Niklas Gotthardsson, owner of a company called Skogsnicke AB.

Slave wages

The workers were reportedly contracted to plant trees for Gotthardsson's company for a fixed monthly salary of 18.500 Swedish kronors (about 2,900 US dollars), but upon arrival in Sweden their contracts were changed and they weren't paid as agreed. According to Svt, they were paid 0.2288 Swedish kronors/plant under a new contract. That's about 0.036 US dollars/plant or 0.027 euros/plant.

They were forced to accept the new deal because they had no other option in a foreign land - where they reportedly knew no one other than their employer. They planted thousands of trees a day in numerous localities in northern Sweden.

One of the workers tells reporters that he was paid only 6000 kronors (about 954 US dollars) a month under the new contract. A far cry from what he was offered before leaving Cameroon.

Threats, insufficient food and sleep

Those who complained were threatened by business owner Niklas Gotthardsson. The employer provided accommodation for the workers: one room and one toilet for 10 people. According to one of the workers, Ndjomo Denis, they didn't have sufficient sleep or enough food.

The men were trapped at the mercy of Gotthardsson.

The video that shines light on a shocking tale of exploitation for labour purposes is largely in Swedish, with segments in English and French. WATCH.

In my view, the case has hallmarks of human trafficking for labour exploitation and should be investigated and tried as such. The workers were deceived, exploited for labour purposes, paid slave wages, threatened and left in a vulnerable position as undocumented migrants in Sweden. The architect of their suffering should be held to account.

Shared blame

While Gotthardsson is largely responsible for exploitation, Swedish authorities, in my opinion, share part of the blame for leaving migrant workers at the mercy of an employer without information about their rights and how to seek help in case of labour rights violations.

The government of Cameroon also shoulders part of the blame. Endemic corruption and decades of bad governance has left scores of Cameroonians vulnerable to exploitation by potential modern-day "slave owners" like Niklas Gotthardsson. Governments have a duty to protect their citizens, but migrant workers from Cameroon are stranded in Sweden with no word or assistance from their government. This speaks volumes about lack of commitment by a government to serve and protect its people from abuse.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Gotthardsson's company - Skogsnicke AB - is a subcontractor of Swedish forestry giants SCA and Holmen. Both corporations have denied responsibility for the exploitation although the workers planted trees on their land. [Source]

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) requires corporations and companies to ensure that human rights, national laws, international standards and ethical norms are respected all through the supply chain. By subcontracting a company that violates Swedish law and international human rights and labour rights standards, SCA and Holmen are socially irresponsible corporations - in my opinion. The corporations have a corporate social duty to ensure that all their contractors respect human rights and labour laws. It's socially irresponsible to fail to do so.

Niklas Gotthardsson is reportedly under investigation by police and Swedish immigration office.

As of the time of writing, Sweden has not signed or ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bearers of foreign names less likely to find work in Sweden

Whenever I hear or read about unequal opportunities or discrimination on grounds of origin, Barack Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention comes to mind. In the speech Obama said, "...they would give me an African name, Barack, or 'blessed,' believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success." He called America a "magical place" where your name is no barrier to success. [Source] I wish the same could be said of European countries, but tales of discrimination and exclusion like the story of a foreign student in Sweden leave me with no doubt that European countries have a long way to go in terms of guaranteeing equal opportunities for all without discrimination on grounds of origin.

Discrimination is hard to prove. Due to the difficulties involved, many perpetrators go unpunished and many cases unreported. Consequently, some people in societies plagued by the social ill, mostly beneficiaries of discriminatory practices, overlook or downplay the prevalence of discrimination and naively think that victims of discrimination are simply lazy underachievers. Little do those not targeted by discrimination know that there is an invisible hand working against a certain group of people. Discrimination is a big problem in many societies around the world, including in so-called free and democratic societies in Europe. A CV experiment by a Romanian student in Uppsala, Sweden's fourth largest city located about 70 kilometers north of Stockholm supports this assertion.

Name change

After sending numerous job applications in Sweden with no positive outcome, a student from Romania decided to experiment. According to The Local, he changed his name on his CV to a "more Swedish" name after reportedly sending more than 200 CVs in Sweden and receiving no response. He printed 40 CVs in Swedish - not specifying his nationality. All 40 CVs contained the same information, but he used his real name in 20 of them and used a common Swedish name on the other 20. He sent the CVs to companies in Sweden and to a job recruitment agency.

All CVs with his real name went unanswered while 13 out of 20 CVs with a Swedish name landed interview offers. According to him the CVs with his real name got no interviews because employers saw a foreign name.

No coincidence

I love Sweden, but I can't defend it in this case. In my opinion, it's no coincidence that 20 CVs with a foreign name went unanswered while 13 out of 20 with a common Swedish name garnered interview offers. Results of the experiment show that a job seeker with a Swedish name is 13 times more likely to be invited for job interviews than an equally qualified job applicant with a foreign name.

The experience of the Romanian student in Uppsala represents the actual situation on the ground. According to a programme on Radio Sweden, there's lack of diversity in Swedish workforce and only 65 percent of foreign-born Swedes have jobs, compared to 80 percent among Swedish-born population. Based on the CV experiment, it is plausible to conclude names on CVs have something to do with the disparity.

Sweden is not alone. Discrimination prevails in labour markets in many countries around the world. Foreigners seeking employment in Sweden and other European countries can relate to the name-change experiment. In Finland for instance, unemployment among foreign nationals was 25.9 percent in late 2009 - more than double the unemployment rate among Finland's native-born population. Go figure.

Barrier to success

The CV name-change experiment tells me that in Sweden, a qualified Zuzeeko doesn't have equal opportunities in the labour market with a Johansson, Karlsson, Nilsson or Eriksson - simply because Zuzeeko is a foreign name. It suggests that a qualified job seeker with a foreign name ought to change his/her identity in order to easily find work or at least be invited for an interview. It's a shame that in a country like Sweden that promotes diversity and equal opportunities, people's chances of finding relevant work are limited by the names they bear. Perhaps Barack Obama, a "skinny kid with a funny name" would have had his hopes, dreams and aspirations shattered had he pursued them in Sweden or somewhere in Scandinavia or Europe - where your name is a barrier to success.

While the U.S. still has a lot of work to do in terms of equality and equal opportunities, the country is in my opinion way ahead of many - if not all - European countries. In the U.S., the son of a foreign student and bearer of an African name became 44th president. In Europe, the odds against someone with the same story and the same name are staggering. Perhaps Barack Obama was right when he said, "in no other country on earth" is his story possible. I would argue that Sweden and Europe as a whole have something to learn from America. Everyone should be given a fair shot to pursue dreams and contribute to society - without discrimination of any kind.

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