Coming to Estonia: shortage of unskilled workers

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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees

So far, the talk in Estonia has mainly centred on lack of specialists, and the need to import them; now, the situation with cheap labour force is getting increasingly critical. In the field of tourism, peak months have become so painful that the entrepreneurs think it’s high time to consider import of unskilled foreigners. The option has been addressed at Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications (MEAC).

«Today, we are talking about qualified professionals; but we need to start to think where to get unskilled labourers. That, actually, is lion’s share of the need,» admitted MEAC vice chancellor Ahti Kuningas.

According to Mr Kuningas, the professions experiencing acutest lack of employees are indeed these that require high qualification and special skills; even so, the largest need in volume is for helpers, janitors, shop assistants, builders. Of these, the largest numbers will retire in near future, creating a vacuum.

Forecasts say that starting 2016, more people will be leaving the labour market in Estonia than new ones added; right now, the end of the trend is nowhere in sight.

Average wages

An option would be simplify bringing workers from outside the European Union. While, currently, unskilled workers from third countries may be brought to Estonia at average wages of the field, for half a year, Mr Kuningas says it should be analysed if in two years it could be allowed to bring people, for a determined season, at under-average wages.

«Thankfully, we have managed to make amendments to laws quite fast; even so, this would require deeper analysis. We do have the overall numbers; but the specific sectors, the conditions, and the possible impact on society – this needs to be considered calmly and unhurriedly,» said Mr Kuningas.

The cheap labour problem is getting especially sharp in tourism. Numbers of tourists visiting Estonia keep increasing yearly; meanwhile, the numbers of those willing to serve them are in decline. If at all, a servant’s job would rather be considered abroad.

According to Verni Loodmaa, CEO of Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association, the tourism sector has been facing labour shortage for years, but the problem is intensifying. He said we have come to a point where workers need to be brought in from abroad. An option would be to use the EU labour market.

Jobs for Spain’s youth

He noted the embassy of Spain has addressed Estonia’s major hotels, asking if their youth could come here for seasonal jobs.

In high season i.e. summer, EU labour would not cover the need for cooks, dishwashers, room cleaners, and waitresses, said Mr Loodmaa.

«No escaping bringing workers from third countries. At the same time, we need to see that the people would come from a similar cultural space and that the language problems would be minimal,» said Mr Loodmaa, adding that historically we have been preconditioned for bringing in workers from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

When it comes to MEAC idea of bringing in seasonal workers, Mr Loodmaa is sceptical.

According to Allan Ronimois, Estonian head for cleaning company SOL with nearly 1,700 employees, they are currently able to find workers, changing salaries and raising process for services; even so, he understands the concerns of companies offering cheaper products or services.

«I understand the hotels and the enterprises, because if the lower wages would rise, competitiveness would go down,» admitted Mr Ronimois. Still, he thinks the vacancies can be filled without bringing in foreigners. «The wage level will simply rise to the level where people are willing to work. The market will settle it, actually,» said he. «Here [in Estonia], very many go to work abroad because of the salary. In that sense, it is good if the lower salaries rise so these people can make a decent living. Perhaps, then, more people will stay in Estonia.»


Juhan Parts, minister of economic affairs and communications

Economy ministry has pursued the policy that it is prudent to export work, not import labour force.

In our opinion, it is prudent for Estonian companies to expand and grow outside of Estonia, while leaving their headquarters, profits withdrawn, and – hopefully – the better paid jobs in Estonia.

Tourism sector would be the one where we could discuss bringing in workers; but I would not put it into the scale of conservative vs liberal immigration policy. This we will discuss when faced with the situation of needing temporary labour during a certain period.

It is difficult to assess when that will happen, Estonia being part of the EU labour market. If you go and look, who are building the Narva power stations, there are very many people who are not actually residents of Estonia.

We will be communicating with entrepreneurs and should such a strategic question arise, and we see that there is no solution on the domestic labour market and by free workers movement within the EU, we will have to see what else we can do. We need to understand that labour force market is also a market. This market may start functioning with a certain time delay. There’s still room on the internal EU market.

Talking about immigration, in a very simplified manner, let’s imagine that immigration risk arises if we bring in the so-called cheap labour force, these people will remain here, we will have longer generations and issues of integration; but, in reality, we already have quite a lot of labour force that came in 30–40 years ago.

Furthermore, there has not been a single year when Estonia has used up the allowed labour force immigration quota.