Employment advisory service for immigrants increasingly busy – “We should have zero tolerance for exploitation”

The employee rights advisory service for immigrants provides anonymous, low-threshold advice free of charge to migrant workers. Demand for the service has increased this year.
30.09.2020 09:31
Most employees who contact the employee rights advisory service for immigrants work in sectors organised by an SAK-affiliated trade union. Photo Annika Rauhala.

Funded by SAK and seven affiliated trade unions, this is the only service in Finland that supplies advice on employment and trade union membership to foreign employees. Most enquiries concern uncertainties over pay and outstanding wages. Specialist adviser Maaret Pulliainen notes that the coronavirus epidemic has also been a factor in contacts this year.

The advisory service received 263 contacts during the first half of 2020, which is slightly more than in the preceding two years.

– Many contacts concerned coronavirus, especially in March. People were worried about their own livelihoods and health. The need for information was huge.

For example, the Finnish furloughing system is unknown to many people who have come from abroad, and layoffs are even confused with outright dismissal.

The employee rights advisory service for immigrants seeks in particular to reach foreign employees who are not trade union members, and those in certain groups who are not ordinarily covered by regular services, such as seasonal and posted workers arriving in Finland. Only 8,5 percent of service contacts this year said they were union members.

Zero tolerance for exploitation

Several cases of serious foreign worker exploitation have come to public attention in Finland recently. These cases came as no surprise to Maaret Pulliainen. Foreign employees are at greater risk of exploitation in the world of work, due to such factors as deficient language skills and a poor grasp of employment customs and regulations. Dependence on a residence permit also exposes employees to exploitation. This often explains the reluctance to call attention to exploitation, when the practical consequences of doing so may be harsher for the employee than for the employer.

Pulliainen welcomes the media coverage that has brought these cases to broader public attention in Finland.

– SAK has long been calling for measures to rectify the situation of foreign workers, and some progress has now been made. A government task force established by Minister of Labour Tuula Haatainen is proposing measures to prevent and tackle the exploitation of workers more effectively.

Specialists consulted by the task force included representatives of Service Union United PAM and the SAK employee rights advisory service for immigrants.

Pulliainen points out that employers who unfairly compromise working conditions gain a competitive advantage that damages honest businesses and their employees. It is accordingly in the interests of the business community and employee organisations to tackle such abuses.

– Shop stewards are particularly well placed to identify abuses at the workplace. We must have zero tolerance for exploitation. This is the only way to eradicate its influence from the world of work in Finland.

Union services easily accessible

Immigrants have widely varying knowledge of trade unions. Some who contact the employee rights advisory service have never heard of trade unions, or are unaware that they can join a union. Many are unclear about the role and work of a trade union, and may also be suspicious of unions.

– Unions should work to make their services more easily accessible and approachable. Features such as multilingual websites, a preference for plain language and the use of multiple communication channels would help, Maaret Pulliainen explains.

The employee rights advisory service for immigrants helps unions to enhance their ability to advise foreign workers by such means as arranging training and information sessions for unions and employee representatives.

Most employees who contact the employee rights advisory service for immigrants work in sectors organised by an SAK-affiliated trade union. They are most commonly employed in industries organised by Service Unions United PAM, working particularly in restaurants and as cleaners in property maintenance companies. These are both sectors that employ many immigrants.

Some enquiries also come from employees working in occupations organised by the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (Akava), such as specialists in technology, Maaret Pulliainen notes.

She stresses that trade union membership is always recommended when the caller is in work, and students are advised that they may often enrol in unions as student members.

Pirjo Pajunen