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JHL’s third immigrant network has been founded, it only needs a name

Sunitha Akurathi and Michaël Fandi hope that the network will give them encounters, peer support and information about working life.

JHL’s immigrant networks are low-threshold channels for getting involved in trade union activities. The union’s latest, third immigrant network has been founded in the region of Inner Finland, and it’s currently starting its operations.

In the middle of August 2021, an excited bunch gathered together on Viikinsaari, an island in Tampere. Some of the participants hail from India, South Africa, France, Brazil, Russia and Thailand. Altogether 17 people took part in the founding meeting of the new immigrant network.

– The network is still so new it doesn’t have a name yet. For the next meeting, the participants’ home assignment is to think of good suggestions for a name, regional activities specialist Isto Mäkelä from the regional office of Inner Finland explains.

During the trip to Viikinsaari, participants had the chance to get acquainted with other network members and read union material.

Mäkelä is the regional manager of the new network. However, he emphasises that members and their requests need to be the starting point for activities.

– I aim to feed the network and see to it that the passion and activities don’t cease to exist. Otherwise, the members are in charge.

Three networks in operation

JHL has previously founded two immigrant networks, KaMuT which operates in the Helsinki Metropolitan Region, and MeVe which operates in Southwest Finland.

– I’m happy that there is now an immigrant network also in Inner Finland, says Michaël Fandi from Jyväskylä who participated in the meeting on Viikinsaari.

A two-year immigrant project was launched at the beginning of 2021. Its goal is to increase the number of the union’s regional networks, and also otherwise target services to members with an immigrant background.

Anurak Manopraneed-Järvinen, who originally hails from Thailand, has been living in Finland for 30 years. She joined JHL in June 2021 and immediately wanted to get involved in the immigrant network’s activities.

Inner Finland was a natural place to start a new network: About 400 JHL members of immigrant descent live in Pirkanmaa and Central Finland, and their numbers are increasing annually.

Last spring, when immigrant members were contacted by the union and asked if there’s a need for an immigrant network, about 40 per cent of them were interested.

−  The most important goal is to get members with an immigrant background involved in local branch activities and in the decision making of local branches and the union, JHL’s project worker Linda Savonen explains.

Roby Mountrakis and Linda Savonen are in charge of JHL’s immigrant project.

JHL’s central organisation, SAK, also provides employment advice to immigrants. The service is free of charge and open for all, and you don’t have to be a trade union member to ask questions.

Trade unions are unfamiliar to many

During the first network meeting, people got to know each other. A chair and vice chair were also selected for the network. The chair is Panan Chanphakdee, the vice chair is Michaël Fandi.

Panan Chanphakdee (on the left) and Michaël Fandi are the chairs of Inner Finland’s immigrant network.  Isto Mäkelä (on the right) is a regional activities specialist from JHL’s regional office in Inner Finland.

In addition, the participants listed their requests for the network’s first year of operation: More information on the practicalities of Finnish working life, bowling night, peer support from one immigrant to another, a cooking class for Oriental food and the basics of first aid.

Isto Mäkelä promises to give information on working life and the labour market during each network meeting.

– For someone representing another culture, the basic concepts of Finnish working life may be unfamiliar. They are unaware of employees’ rights and obligations. In addition, they may only have a vague knowledge of trade unions and their role, he argues.

A good example of this is Sunitha Akurathi, 42, who moved to Finland from India ten years ago. Although she has two academic degrees from her home country, and several years of experience as a maths and English teacher, she had never even heard of trade unions.

– I studied and worked in private schools and universities, and their employees were not organised, she explains.

Participants got close to nature in Viikinsaari, where the first meeting of JHL’s regional immigrant network of Inner Finland took place. Pictured on the right is JHL’s project worker Linda Savonen.

Michaël Fandi, 45, who hails from France, disliked trade unions because they are thoroughly political in his former home country.

– In France, organising doesn’t happen by professional sector. It happens on political grounds. There are harsh confrontations, and union activities mainly have to do with demonstrations, strikes and rebellion. I didn’t have any interest in it, he says.

Love brought him to Finland

Fandi’s reason for moving to Finland is the most classic one, love. He met a Finnish woman and moved to Finland in 2004. Nowadays, the family has three children and Fandi himself has a steady position in working life.

However, settling in Finland involved a lot of confusion and bureaucracy, although Fandi is a citizen of another EU country.

– At first, I had a tourist status and I had to leave the country every three months. I got a permanent residence permit only after I got married, he explains.

Michaël Fandi moved to Finland in 2004. He lives in Jyväskylä and works as a youth worker for marginalised youth in Laukaa. 

Fandi had worked with 4-12-year-old children in France. In Finland however, getting a job required a local degree. For that reason, he first took a basic degree and graduated as a youth and leisure instructor. After that, he took a UAS degree and graduated as a community educator.

At the moment, Fandi is studying a higher UAS degree and, at the same time, working as a youth worker for marginalised youth in Laukaa.

– There are significant differences between Finnish and French work cultures. In France, workplaces have a stricter hierarchy and employees have more of a subordinate status. Finland is more equal, employees more independent, and the duty of a supervisor is to enable the success of employees.

The recommendation of an acquaintance led to union membership

Fandi started to study Finnish in France, and he has completed his studies in Finnish. In his opinion, acquiring the language of the country of residence is a central factor when it comes to integration.

His request to trade unions is a more active touch already when an immigrant is looking for their first job and, in general, trying to gain a foothold in working life.

– Someone should tell them how the job seeking process in Finland works and give advice in practical matters so that a job seeker will not miss a job opportunity because of a lacking certificate or other document.

When it comes to integration, acquiring the language of the country of residence is a central factor.

If a job seeker is not invited to job interviews, they get frustrated and, in the worst case, become passive and stop looking for work.

– They will then never become what they could have become. That only results in problems.

Why did Fandi join JHL?

– By advice of an acquaintance. My acquaintance told me that being a member is a guarantee for better security in case I end up unemployed. I’m glad I joined. At the time, I was about to switch jobs and start working for a private company. Later, the company went bankrupt, he explains.

A visit became permanent

Sunitha Akurathi lives in Lempäälä, and also her road to working life and trade union has been a winding one. She came to Finland ten years ago with her Indian husband, when he was hired as an engineer in Tampere.

– It was a three-month fixed-term job. The boys were two and four years old, and our mindset was that we would soon return to India.

Sunitha Akurathi works as an assistant for teaching and afternoon activities in Tampere.

The fixed-term employment contract was extended several times, which also extended the family’s stay.

– For two years I was at home, took care of the children and only went to the nearby grocery store. It was cold and dark, and hardly any people around, she describes her culture shock.

When her children started pre-school and day care, Akurathi was able to participate in a language course organised by the TE Office. She then started to adjust to her new home country.

However, her Indian academic degrees in pedagogy and maths did not provide a path to work for her. Akurathi took a vocational degree and graduated as a teaching assistant in 2018. Thanks to a practical training internship that she completed as part of her studies, she got a steady job from Peltolammin koulu, a school in Tampere.

Some skills go unused

Over time, Akurathi’s Finnish skills have improved. She hopes that she can make use of her teaching experience in the future in Finland.

– Right now, some of my skills go to waste. I would like to teach English and maths to young people. My salary would then be better as well.

She got involved in the immigrant network’s activities to support and help other immigrant members, and to get more information on Finnish work legislation and how to get her previous academic degrees recognised in Finland.

After ten years, Sunitha Akurathi is feeling at home in Finland. Finland is now the permanent home country of the family, and Sunitha Akurathi and her sons are Finnish citizens.

– Our home language is Telugu, spoken in Southern India, and our food is a bit spicier than the average Finnish food. However, we’ve adjusted well to the local lifestyle otherwise, and we’ve made Finnish friends, she explains.

The next meeting of Inner Finland’s immigrant network will take place on 9 October in Scandic City hotel in Tampere.