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As the number of working-age people decreases, who will care for us?

Finland’s population is ageing, and the need for care is increasing. Already now, the nursing sector is struggling with a shortage of labour. Labour immigration would ease the shortage of nurses. However, before it is promoted actively, one must agree on the rules. This article is a part of member magazine Motiivi’s series of articles about Finland getting grey, pensions and the economy.

Lähihoitaja Valli Pruuli

In Estonia, practical nurse Valli Pruuli, 55, was used to always receiving a quick reply to her job application. However, she had not heard anything about the job application that she had sent to Finland, and a lot of time had passed.

Thus, Pruuli reached for the phone and called from Tallinn to Helsinki. She wanted to know why she had received no reply and why she had not even been asked for an interview.

– It turned out that the department nurse hadn’t even received my application. It was found in the caretaker’s booth. I was asked if I could come for an interview after a week.

The interview took place in mid-December 2006. A couple of weeks later, right after the Christmas holidays, she started a new job at a residential care home in Helsinki.

It was easy and smooth to move from one EU country to another and to have the degrees completed in Estonia recognised. Pruuli already had skills in the Finnish language – after all, young people in Estonia used Finnish school books and watched the TV channel MTV3 during Soviet times. Later, her employer also bought a language course for the foreign subordinates.

Practical nurse Valli Pruuli moved from Estonia to Finland for work 15 years ago. Since then, there’s been plenty of work. Labour immigration is a necessity, especially in the nursing sector.

Love for elderly people

For Pruuli, caring for elderly people is a calling. Originally, she planned to become a youth worker because she is in her own words quick, edgy and strong-minded.

Pruuli had a happy childhood, but her parents died when she was still young. During her studies, she got to try out elderly care as an intern and noticed it was her thing.

– If you were loved as a child, you need to give back that love to your parents as they’re approaching the end of their life. At the residential care home, I realised that this is the right kind of work for me.

However, she could not live on her pay in Tallinn as a single mother, which is why she started to look for work in Finland.

After living in Finland for a few years, she became a trade union active and an active member in JHL’s immigrant network. There is plenty of work to do. In Pruuli’s current workplace alone, most of the co-workers have an immigrant background.

Shortage of employees is a threat

Right now, Finland really needs people like Pruuli and her co-workers. Labour immigration is a continuous topic of discussion in Finland, and everyone is especially aware of the nursing sector’s enormous shortage of employees. The problem applies to many other JHL sectors, too. For instance in October 2021, the union warned that the number of children’s nurses taking contact has risen through the roof during the past three years, and there is a risk that large masses of early childhood education and care employees will leave the sector.

Without active measures, the situation is unlikely to get any easier in the future, seeing as Finland’s population is ageing and the birth rate is low. Director of foresight, insight and strategy at Sitra, Katri Vataja, says that ageing raises many kinds of questions about the work of the future: What kinds of work and services are needed in a society where the number of elderly and late-middle aged people is increasing? As the number of working-age people decreases, how can we get jobs filled and attract competence?

If nurses can’t do their job properly, it’s a huge burden to them.

Practical nurse Valli Pruuli

The change is extensive. The number of those over 65 was approximately 700,000 in 1990. In the coming decades, their number will increase by a million. JHL’s head of public affairs Vesa Mauriala describes how Finnish retail shops will sell more nappies for elderly people than children in the coming decades.

– Labour immigration is a necessity – by 2030, a quarter of municipal employees and a fifth of the employees in the upcoming wellbeing services counties will retire.

Burden of insufficiency

Pruuli explains that the shortage of nurses is tangible even now in her workplace.  At the end of a work shift, she often thinks about what was left undone because she was in a hurry. With fragile seniors, an activity such as brushing teeth may take about 20 minutes instead of five. The next patient is then already waiting for their turn.

– If nurses can’t do their job properly, it’s a huge burden to them. We don’t work with paper and rocks, we work with people. Although it gives strength, it is also a physical and mental burden.

The employer will then start to look for a new employee willing to settle for a smaller pay.

Valli Pruuli

Pruuli spares no words when it comes to praising her own very international team and its community spirit. For instance, she is happy with the fact that she was recruited to a new workplace despite being over 50 years of age and thus a more expensive employee with her length-of-service increments than, say, a recent graduate.

Many of those who have moved to Finland for work would not necessarily know how to demand the increments that they deserve or would not dare to demand them. When working for the union in positions of responsibility, Pruuli has ran into cases where, say, an immigrant has found out that their pay is smaller than that of the co-workers. Alternatively, the immigrant’s terms and conditions of employment are weaker in some other way. Pruuli says that there have been cases where an employee has tried to address the shortcomings. As a result, their fixed-term employment contract has not been renewed.

– The employer will then start to look for a new employee willing to settle for a smaller pay, Pruuli says.

Pruuli thinks that employers should be responsible for making an employee want to continue to work in the Finnish labour market after the end of their contract. This could mean, say, arranging training such as language training.

In the 1980s, baby boomers were at prime-working age: The population pyramid was wide in the middle and lower part.   In 2019, it was narrower in the middle and lower part but wider in the upper part – the number of working-age people is decreasing fast.

Increments can be “forgotten” from payslip

Various kinds of fraud and exploitation cases are familiar for JHL. For instance in the construction sector, foreign labour has without a doubt affected the pay level, Mauriala points out. Many foreign employees are not unionised, meaning that it is difficult to look after their interests.

This is no small problem. According to Mauriala, it is a known fact that there is slave labour and human trade in Europe, too. Although not all cases are this harsh, especially an immigrant without language skills is more eager than a Finnish person to accept a job even with bad terms and conditions.

However, with the help of collective agreements, progress has been achieved and loopholes blocked. According to Mauriala, the agreements ensure for instance that entire pay components, such as holiday pay and holiday compensation, will not be “forgotten” from the payslip.

The only sanction is that the salaries must be paid correctly afterwards.

JHL’s head of public affairs Vesa Mauriala

JHL’s viewpoint is that the current methods for monitoring the situation of foreign employees are too limited in Finland. That is why JHL is striving for, say, the criminalisation of underpayment, meaning that underpayment would be considered a criminal offence. It means that if some of the pay or its components are left unpaid, the matter could even proceed to police investigation. First, the Regional State Administrative Agency could intervene in negligence, for instance by imposing a notice of a conditional fine on the company.

– Right now, individual employees’ cases are taken to court, and the only sanction is that the salaries must be paid correctly afterwards. There aren’t really any other sanctions, Mauriala explains.

The criminalisation of underpayment is currently being prepared by the Finnish Government. Mauriala hopes that this will not remain too ineffective a tool.

Nurses need language skills

In JHL’s sectors, labour immigration is not the easiest solution. For instance in the nursing sector, language skills are of great significance, and sufficient language skills are a prerequisite for working. In addition, Valvira (National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health) determines the conditions of employees’ competence for many of the union’s sectors.

Mauriala points out that when it comes to language skills, almost all of JHL’s sectors have needs that differ from, say, the industry.

– A top-notch professional from Belarus can come to Finland to use a lathe manufactured in Germany, although they don’t speak the language. When it comes to working with people, this is not possible.

Both Vataja and Mauriala also stress that labour immigration cannot solve the problems that the nursing sector is already now struggling with. The working conditions, well-being at work and the attractiveness of the work must first be put right.

– Seeking foreign labour to work in dysfunctional working conditions is not the way to go. Such operation is unsustainable and not at all responsible in modern-day world, Vataja says.

Recruiting foreigners to work in conditions in which Finnish people refuse to work is solving the problem without solving the problem, Mauriala points out.

One of JHL’s key demands is that everything must be in order with fallback clauses before promoting immigration actively. In other words, everything must be in order with authority supervision, the definition of controller responsibilities and obligations, and the legislation that protects the position of employees.

This also promotes the well-being at work of those Finns who are already working. Mauriala stresses how Finnish employees expect the recruitment of foreign employees not to lead to worsening everyone’s terms and conditions of employment.

Practical nurse Valli Pruuli is also a trade union active. As a shop steward, she has noticed that employers do not always treat immigrants fairly.

Address the reasons, not the consequences

One way of increasing labour immigration is diminishing the bureaucracy related to it. When it comes to, say, growth entrepreneurs, something is already being done about this. JHL demands that the public sector and its special needs are dealt with as their own separate entirety, for instance because of the demands related to language skills.

The union does not stand for, say, eliminating labour market tests. It emphasises that measures should be taken to get those who already live in the country to enter into working life. Pruuli, Vataja and Mauriala emphasise that if the attractiveness of the work was improved, the nursing sector could attract those who have left the sector or switched to a different sector.

Pruuli reminds about a case that was in the news in Southern Finland. A private employment agency reported that it had promised a pay that exceeds the collective agreement to those selected for practical nurse positions. This led to a much greater number of job applications than usual.

– The employees were recruited from Finland after all, she states.

According to Vataja, the reasons to shortage of labour may vary from one sector to another. These can include attractiveness factors, pay, or the fact that Finland does not have enough many highly skilled professionals within a certain sector. In addition, Vataja feels there is reason to ponder how those already living in the country could be integrated into the labour force.

– Could for instance targeted training help find suitable employees in Finland, too? There are no automatic one-size-fits-all solutions.

Mauriala thinks that foreign labour alone is not a solution to the shortage of labour. For instance, those who have switched sectors and educating unemployed people can also provide help in this matter. Foreign labour is just one tool in a toolbox from which all possible tools are needed.

However, the problem is solvable.

– The dependency ratio problem can be tackled. If labour immigration is not organised in a sensible way, we have to face a situation of stalling economic growth. We will also not be able to provide necessary services, Mauriala says.

Make the rules clear

In October 2021, the Finnish Public Services Unions’ International Network FIPSU published ethical principles for the recruitment of foreign employees. The goal is to strengthen labour market rules and the treatment of employees to make sure everyone is treated equally.

FIPSU requires that Finland will not transfer its shortage of labour to other countries. The emigration of skilled workforce must not, say, cripple basic services in the countries of origin.

Employers who recruit from abroad must, among other things, ensure that before the employees leave, they get basic information on the work they are going to do, their rights and obligations.

FIPSU is demanding rules that are fair for everyone and help avoid a parallel labour market. Furthermore, it calls for more supervision and even harder punishments for, say, exploitation.