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Finland's failure to attract migrants - Why Finland can't retain it's foreign workforce?

The National Coalition Party's solution is to demand More obligations for immigrants... but is there a better way?

According to the National Coalition Party (NCP), and also few other political parties, employment should be the central measure to integration. This (employment) is a most welcome idea for most immigrants who have migrated into Finland for an opportunity to improve their lives - on this we can surly all agree upon.

There are various reasons for migration, and it is inevitable. It has been happening for centuries, whether by choice, as to trade, to work or study, through marriage, adoption etc., or by necessity of asylum for refugees and so on. Immigration an migration happens all the time all around us, there is no escaping it. Immigration and immigrants should not be seen as something menacing or bad, but rather a strength and opportunity for the host country of residence for immigrants who want to be gainfully useful to themselves and the new community where they have settled - a strength that invigorates society as-a-whole.

However, the Coalition party’s parliamentary groups’ proposal (23.07.2021), to reform immigration and integration policies - would drastically intensify employment driven migration and limit immigrants access to social benefits for the betterment of their integration into the Finnish society - this raises eyebrows, confusion and some serious concerns amongst immigrants.

The most notable changes would cut immigrants' social safety net drastically and social benefits would be tied to a job and paying taxes. This notion sounds good theoretically, however the practicality is more problematic. The idea behind this proposal is successfully integrating people into work life and not into unemployment, emphasizing the individual as a proactive action maker who also, basically bears the sole responsibility of one’s social well-being, albeit the proposal mentions that successful integration requires action from both the individual and society.

In order to have a deeper understanding of the NCP’s proposed reforms, it must be broken down to smaller subcategories including employment driven immigration, refugees and asylum seekers, and integration policies before we can address the proposal and its possible effects in the right context – and after carefully reviewing the Coalition party’s new proposal the following remarks must be made.

Although this proposal from NCP aims for better productivity and participation of all members of the society as-a-whole, and we can all agree that reforms Finnish immigration policies really are necessary, it still leaves much room for improvement, as it fails to realistically address or provide solutions to some of the already existent problems in Finland’s immigration and integration policies.

Therefore, we must address these types of policy related decisions and reforms meticulously and carefully, especially when deciding between incentives and enforcement which could have serious long-lasting impacts on people’s lives and well-being for years to come.

When viewing the Coalition party’s proposal from a wider societal context a quick reader could make a presumption that immigrants choose to stay unemployed because their social benefits are so good, or too good. This presumption and way of thinking can be appealing for some – but it is not entirely just, because while there are immigrants who remain unemployed and live on social benefits, there are also numerous native Finns who choose to stay unemployed for this very reason.

For us to better understand why many immigrants remain unemployed in Finland or don't integrate. And if we truly want to enact change, and engage people, strengthen their participation in society, in order to create sustainable growth for ourselves, our children and the generations to come - we must delve deeper and look at this societal problem from inside out - not with a superficial approach from above down.

Some challenges faced in the area of immigrant employment have developed as a result of disparities in the job market and the inability to secure jobs after degree studies. Finland has failed to recognize and utilize the already existing potential in these educated immigrants.

Most foreigners who came to Finland for studies do not regard Finland as their home because of the difficulty in finding a job matching their field of study. Upon graduating from higher education many of them relocate to countries like the UK, USA, Canada, etc. where they have better opportunities of secure jobs relating to their field of study. Migrants in this category include individuals from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya and many other African nationalities.

Language learning is an important part of integrating into Finnish society, but for many of those internationals who have studied the language can still find it very difficult to integrate into the Finnish job markets, it becomes a deterrent for others and sends mixed signals. Finland needs more internationals and immigration, but won’t accept anyone, even professionally qualified to its job markets without proficient Finnish language skills. The emphasis on proficiency in Finnish language as a sine qua non for getting a job does not seem to make so much sense in a country where over 70 percent of the population, including the elderly, communicate fluently in English.

It is noteworthy that those who came to Finland for degree programs instructed entirely in English often end up not having the opportunity or time to study Finnish language. In most cases, it is the non-English speaking immigrants that have no other means to communicate (except with those coming from the same place as them) who rather perceive taking the Finnish language courses as compulsory, because they simply have no other option. On the other hand, those who have English as their native language often end up acquiring higher degrees in English and still end up having challenges in the job market.

Finland should give serious consideration whether to truly internationalize their university programs and provide suitable employment for the English-language graduates turned out from their universities, because eventually, the less educated, non-English speaking immigrants that went for Finnish lessons often end up taking up jobs suited for the highly-educated, English-language-oriented graduates. Another really big problem in Finnish job markets is recruitment practices. It is undeniable that there is bias in the recruitment process, so it is much suggestible to develop more anonymous recruitment with the absence of names or other identification revealing details. In other words, the recruitment would only be based on the qualifications and expertise of the individual.

General attitudes towards immigrants and migrant workers in Finnish society also pose big obstacles for smooth integration. There is a serious lack of trust in immigrants in our society, which manifests in rejection in everyday life, and which can follow immigrants through generations from the first generation to the second and third even. This is evident when observing academic graduates from the Finnish higher education who keep being undermined and almost never get to live their full potential i.e. becoming judges, jurors, board members of listed companies, political advisors, industry experts, and in many other professions, which seem out of reach for people with immigrant backgrounds.

More often than not, employees of immigrant backgrounds are not included into the group as equals in the workplace, they are left out. Many feel isolated, left alone, they are given dismissals for no valid reasons and thus may eventually develop mental illnesses because their voices aren’t heard nor opinions recognized equally.

Immigrants’ active motivation to integrate is shunned and often misunderstood as competition and thus avoided. Yet there are brave immigrants that are giving their utmost contributions actively into the society through activism and politics, building bridges and understanding between the majority and minority cultures, breaking through previously shut doors and leading the way for others to follow in their footsteps.

And yet despite all these difficulties Finland still attracts many migrants, students and refugees who come to the country voluntarily. The latter group has had no real problems learning the language, in fact it’s in their integration policy, but for the former groups there are very few options for self-study. This is a major problem. There should be more Finnish language courses provided to immigrants that can be studied independently. A person who voluntarily chooses to learn the language, also makes a stronger commitment to integrate into Finnish society and we should provide them with more opportunities and tools to support them in doing so.

More so, many migrants who came to Finland for work-related purposes see their stay in the Nordic country as only temporary. For this very reason most foreigners are already fundamentally uninterested in integrating and don’t see the value for them participating in society, nor being part of the democratic decision making through voting in elections.

Another way (other than just langue learning) for faster and more effective integration would be to grant refugees and asylum seekers better incentives for becoming entrepreneurs upon arriving in Finland. Finland can and should also engage in benchmarking and adapt best practices in this area from other countries such as Canada. By doing so immigrants will merge faster in their new home country of Finland and unemployment amongst migrants will be reduced. This will also bring a much needed boost to the economy with more competition and diversity of choice.

Shortening the immigration processes of refugees and asylum seekers to a fraction of the current processing times is yet another good way to improve integration, and surely welcomed by everyone on both sides of the process. This way people wouldn't have to wait passively for months while their cases slowly move through the system forcing them to live on state welfare benefits. (because while being processed i.e. asylum seekers are not allowed to get work permits and existing permits will be revoked for the duration of their application periods, which may take more than a year to process). We must consider that these periods could be used more productively, such that asylum seekers with ongoing processes can still contribute to the society, by working and paying taxes.

If Finland wants to keep attracting committed migrant workers in a sustainable manner (as most economic reports say that Finnish workforce and economy needs immigrants), the question to be answered should be; how are we going to succeed in it with stringent measures against immigrants when it comes to their welfare and taxation?

As everyone is well aware, Finland has a serious shortage of qualified workforce (i.e. nurses and other healthcare workers) and whilst we can argue that the Finnish primary care services are unsustainable without foreign migrant labor force, this approach can be a deceptive double edged sword that doesn’t fix the underlying problems in healthcare services and only makes them harder to be fixed later in future.

For example, doubling international recruitment is not strategic, when we have just as many qualified internationals here in Finland who are unemployed and unable to find jobs matching their qualifications. Majority of these individuals already speak Finnish (fluently), understand the culture and want to make Finland their home. They should be a good starting point and priority for recruitment, not focusing on more international recruitment.

There are about 40,000 healthcare professionals and caregivers in Finland working outside of their field of study. Primary care professionals and caregivers also need to be fairly remunerated for their work so the profession remains attractive for everyone. Staff shortages, overcrowding of workers with increasing new tasks, short rest periods between shifts and low salaries cause many to switch industries. Finnish government should acknowledge this and direct more budget and other resources into healthcare services instead of fluxing the industry (not just the healthcare industry) with more foreign workers which only incentivizes more cheap labor and further encourages employers to keep wages low, whereby making the industry less attractive for everyone and creating more demand for yet more cheap labor to be brought in.

All this is not to say the NCP's entire proposal is unacceptable. We insist that improvements in the protection of disadvantaged immigrants, especially women in the job market and boosting equal opportunities for employment are admirable goals. However, these problems can’t be corrected simply with more stringent immigration policy measures, but rather by fixing existing labor policies and changing attitudes towards immigration and immigrants for faster, efficient and more encouraging integration, not by creating new challenges, obstacles that cause more confrontations.

If immigrants’ access to welfare benefits become limited, there must be more reforms done in the job market for protecting workers against misconducts and abuse, and immigrants should be given tax reprieves (for minimum 2-3 years) as soon as they start working, like is done in The Netherlands. These newly proposed actions such as that in the Netherlands have been shown to create more employment, instead of forcing people into more severe dependency on welfare and struggle for survival.

Finland already has fairly good labor protection legislation, but still there continues to be violations of workers' rights because there are not enough resources to invest in supervision and prevention measures. According to surveys, forced labor in Finland is common in the restaurant industry, the cleaning industry and construction sites. Forced labor also occurs in the conditions of domestic helpers of private families and in work on farm sites.

Another issue that challenges immigration is trafficking, examples of such being visible in forced marriages which are only brought to the attention of the authorities after there is evidence of domestic violence, needing intervention.

In clearly illegal cases, the threshold for victims of trafficking to contact the authorities is very high, as Finnish legislation does not currently protect an employed victim of trafficking. A work-based residence permit is tied to a job without which a person has to leave the country. The Aliens Act (muukalaislaki), on the other hand, outlines that if the working conditions have been in conflict with the law and collective agreements, the conditions for the employee's residence permit are not met. This creates situations in which a victim of trafficking who is expelled suffers the consequences of the violation of the law instead of the employer who broke these laws and regulations.

It can not be the case that victims of human trafficking do not dare to contact the authorities for the fear of deportation of themselves or their families. If, for example, the working conditions of a foreign worker are considered illegal, the Aliens Act must not be interpreted as meaning that the conditions for a residence permit are not met, but instead the authorities must take the person and his family into protection and punish the responsible employer instead.

It is completely contrary to the legal understanding that the victims of human trafficking working in Finland remain silent and suffer intolerable working conditions and the threat of domestic violence against them due to fear of their own or their family's expulsion.

There is a serious need in Finland to increase cooperation across the authorities for more supervision of employers and foreign employees working conditions. Victims of human trafficking must be helped and their rights must be safeguarded by strong legislation which doesn't leave loopholes for exploiters to avoid any legal consequences.

This proposal of cutting down the social security nets of immigrants, as the Coalition party has presented, poses a real risk of intentionally creating a class-like system of lower caste residents who do not have nor enjoy equal rights to actual state residents and citizens, which could increase anarchist attitudes. In other words, driving people poor enough to resort to crime as a means for survival.

One could also say, looking at the positioning of the Coalition party’s candidates on the political values map showing the party’s gradual shift to further right in the last municipal elections, that this proposal might be an indication that the party is trying to be more appealing to the scattered right-wing electorates (who are, more often than not, uniformed, uneducated and therefore more impressionable to aggressive immigration policies).

Let us never forget that integration is always a two-way process and we should all agree that freedoms and rights in Finnish society come with shared obligations and responsibilities for all citizens. Immigrants should also be expected to learn more about the Finnish legal systems, social norms, culture, history and language to make their integration processes less difficult and more engaging - and they should be provided with more resources to do so. In return we, as a society, must be forthcoming and willing to hear from all the different immigrant groups more openly to learn and to better understand their own challenges and difficulties in integrating into Finnish society before making blind-sighted recommendations and policy changes which may result in unintended outcomes.



The following tittle holders and professionals contributed by giving their thoughts and insights to this piece and was partly co-written together with: an M.Ed, Culture Producer, a Registered Nurse, an Associate Professor/Adjunct Lecturer at Aalto University, a Social Instructor at City of Helsinki, a PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Helsinki and International Development Consultant at UNICEF Zimbabwe. Thank you!

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