How is the current economic climate affecting immigrant job prospects?

Freedom of movement; the fundamental right of a citizen of a state in which the citizen is present to travel, reside and/or work in any part of the state where one pleases. A noble, empowering idea of ethnic and cultural integration espoused by the EU and its member states. An idea that when filtered through the harsh realities of Finland’s immigration laws and an impending economic downturn can suddenly seem quite restrictive, particularly to the 2.9 per cent who make up Finland’s foreign populace.

According to figures released by Finnish labour organisation SAK, around 12,000 jobs have been lost so far this year compared with 10,600 in 2011. This uptick in figures seems to indicate that Finland has entered a late recession with indigenous companies such as Nokia, Finnair, Metso and the Finnish Defence Forces taking the hit and being forced to lay off employees.

Affecting international

How does this affect the economic “mobility” and employment prospects of foreigners currently living here? Well, as so often happens during difficult financial times, immigrants can be the first to suffer. “During recessions, attitudes to immigrant or foreign workers become harder,” states Marja Tiilikainen of the University of Helsinki’s Department of Social Research. “Also, when the number of available jobs is smaller than before, employers are likely to prefer choosing an applicant who has previous Finnish working experience and Finnish language skills. The requirements unfortunately often exclude applicants with a migrant background.”

However, while potential favouritism for Finns over non-nationals without the required language abilities and work background may occur, Tiilikainen also acknowledges that there are other more logical factors at play when employers decide who goes and who stays. “The fragility of migrants during the times of economic downturn is not only a consequence of potential discrimination but also reflects the fact that those employees who have been in the workforce the shortest are most likely to leave first if the staff needs to be reduced.”

Annika Forsander, Director of Immigration Affairs at City of Helsinki, shares this more rational viewpoint of the current labour market. “You have to look at every single sector and its logic as its own entity,” she explains. “Understand who and why they are working there. It is not immigrants per se affecting it, but perhaps more economical forces are behind what is happening there.” Having dealt with immigration issues for 20 years, Forsander has witnessed a notable improvement in Finnish people’s attitude towards foreign workers since the last recession in the early ‘90s. “Immigrants were the first ones who were fired and they were the last ones to get in. But you have to remember at that time, the structure of the economy was different. But in this recession, it seems the first ones to be let go are those who are under 25. So, unemployment of young people has grown first which is of course, remarkable because there are lots of immigrants in that group.”

Going forward, Forsander feels that much can be done by migrants to improve their situation in the current climate, stressing the importance of foreigners to learn the Finnish language “not only for practical reasons but for symbolic reasons. In this country, the language is also a symbol of belonging. It’s more than just a practical language to learn.” But she also accepts that the state needs to have a speedier integration process in place that will support and educate foreigners in a more efficient way that improves their future prospects. “If you go to the employment office now, they test your language ability and your capacity in language learning. It easily takes one year. We feel that this should be much faster because many people that come to Finland that have certificates, qualifications and an educated background should be evaluated as soon as possible. So even before the person starts any language courses, evaluate their professional skills.”

International perspective

So what is the mood amongst the foreign contingent in Helsinki? Lynsey McNeill, a recruitment co-ordinator based in Helsinki, moved to Finland from Glasgow, Scotland with her Finnish boyfriend two years ago and she is realistic about current developments. “Coming from the UK, it seems that the recession has taken longer to really hit Finland but now I’m hearing of friends losing their jobs or having their hours cut and I can see it’s beginning to happen here too,” she states. “It is already difficult for foreigners to find work here so of course it will have a major impact.” Having attended a full-time Finnish language course and learning the basics, she dismisses the idea that there may be a biased attitude amongst Finnish employers towards non-Finnish speakers. “I don’t blame Finnish employers. Finnish workers are highly skilled and qualified. It makes sense to hire someone who speaks the language as opposed to someone who doesn’t.”

Despite her initial struggles finding work here, McNeill managed to settle very quickly. “I’m quite outgoing so I made lots of friends in my first months here. That definitely helped. Generally, I’ve found that Finnish people are very positive. It’s too easy to generalise and focus on the negative and I have to say many foreigners in Finland are guilty of doing so. For me, any difficulties in finding a job have been down to the language barrier and that’s only to be expected.”

For Joffrey Faucon, a Frenchman working in IT and living in Helsinki for seven years, he found his career path stifled somewhat by his lack of fluency in the Finnish language. “I first began doing an internship in my field – media production – but back then working in that field without networks and Finnish language skills, it was hard. Then, I worked for eight months as a freelance translator – English to French. After that I got a job in IT and five years later, I am still there.”

In his view, “if you are skilled in a particular IT field, I think it will not be too hard to find a job but I would say that today more than a few years ago, the Finnish language is required more and more. I know some people who’ve lost their jobs, as unofficially in some companies, the rule of ‘foreigners go before the nationals’ applies. In my own company, I’ve seen more and more customers in the last two years requesting Finnish language as an asset.”

Though he has himself tried to learn the language, “I can have a basic conversation. If you leave me in the countryside, I will survive. Or if I go to see non English language films I can follow with Finnish subtitles.”

Faucon has been trying to balance a full time job and attending Finnish courses which he says are “often booked long in advance and it can be difficult to get on some of them. Also, from my own experience, I found these courses very good when dealing with the basics of the language but perhaps a different approach is needed to develop foreigners Finnish to a working level. The bad thing about jobs where English is the working language is that you cannot practice Finnish that much.”

Language the key

What is the real issue at play here – that cultural attitudes and plain old perseverance rather than economic shifts can influence ones employment prospects? Perhaps, although one’s attitudes can certainly be shaped by the maddening stress of navigating the dogmatic hell of immigration bureaucracy, which can seem less than welcoming to migrants, often feeling like a prolonged school entrance exam. Or maybe those immigrants and EU citizens with English language skills rely on English too much to get by while those immigrants who are non-English speakers simply have to learn Finnish in order survive and create a life here.

With the current unemployment rate in Finland remaining at 7.5 per cent with no rise expected, the bleak prognostications of financial analysts would appear to have had no immediate effect on the lives of immigrants as yet. But recession or not, the Finnish language appears to be an essential tool in bridging the employment gap between nationals and non-nationals.

Derek Mc Donnell