Working in Finland: homecoming considered with wage rise or when retired

Kristi Karro
, reporter
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Photo: Corbis / Scanpix

An ethnology Master's student at University of Tartu, Keiu Telve studied perceptions of Estonian men working in Finland regarding the commuting, and its impact on their financial behaviour and relations at home.

«The picture painted by media, and strongly pushed by our politicians desiring to stress people emigrating for the sake of convenience, is not always correct,» said Ms Telve. «We ought to also look at family people who work abroad for the very reason to provide a better life for the loved ones.»

At social ministry estimates, a total of about 21,800 Estonians were working in foreign countries in 2014 – about a thousand of increase year-on-year. Ms Telve says the facts are that about 12,000 commute between Estonia and Finland.

The ministry’s employment specialist Heleen Jääger cited an increase of the so called blue-collar workers employed abroad – lion’s share were working in construction. That’s the very target group studied by Keiu Telve in her Master’s thesis.

The main impact behind the travels, said Ms Jääger, were Estonia’s joining the EU, and the economic crisis. «Joining the EU significantly simplified cross-border movement of workers, and the economic crisis cut wages and fitting jobs,» she said.

The good Finnish salary

Sirgo Voore, an Estonian, has worked in Finland for two years and a month. «For ten years, I laboured as fire fighter in Estonia, and I wanted to continue with that in Finland,» said Mr Voore. For him, a puck was provided by the then government ceasing to compensate study loans to public servants.

What keeps Mr Voore in Finland is the higher salary. «The houses here burn the same way, no difference,» he said. There is a difference, however: Finnish fire-fighters possess paramedic papers and are able to give first aid if needed.  

«My greatest weakness is not having these paramedic papers,» admitted Mr Voore, and is therefore rather happy about any job offer in the domain, whatever the conditions.

He said lots of fire-fighters work with fixed-term contracts of five-six months – and so for several years, until full employment is offered.

Family matters

Things are easier for Sirgo Voore, his family consisting of parents and a sister – no wife or children waiting back in Estonia. Therefore, Mr Voore would like to stay in Finland till he earns the Finnish pension. Even so, His father wants him back for the family business and the son stands willing to return.

Keiu Telve says the examples of family and acquaintances matter a lot with decisions to travel to work. «In the rural areas, if one guy goes al his friends go to work in the Nordics,» she said.

Ms Telve went on to explain that often the guys start out rather low and proceed to seek better employment and wages. «Unlike the common Estonian belief, there is no sudden jump in earnings,» assured Ms Telve. «Real success comes after a longer period of time working in Finland.»

The other misconception is about family relations. «The popular image is the guys cheat, all families fall apart, all children and families lose the ties,» listed Ms Telve. «In reality, it is possible to keep the family together while focussing on it during vacations.»

Thus, the time at home – a couple of days or a week – may come with superior quality as compared to evenings in the life working in Estonia.

Keiu Telve draws a dividing line between those who work in Finland for an Estonian entrepreneur, and those who work for locals.

Namely, employees of Estonian enterprises in Finland are paid the average Estonian salary while the overall income is boosted by travel fees.

«But to make things easier for Estonian employers, the men are often stuffed several into two-room apartments,» said Ms Telve.

A large part of people employed by Estonians in Finland are young lads without contacts in Finland.

Social guarantees

«The younger guys are the ones who drink a lot and engage in partying, but I do not think they differ too much of peers back in Estonia,» said Ms Telve. «Even in Estonia we are seeing all these problems attributed to men working in Finland.»

Others work at Finnish employers. «They have collective contracts, often belong to trade unions, having social guarantees,» listed Ms Telve.

To find an employer in Finland, however, the men need personal contacts. «These are the men with vision. They are in Finland only to work, and often have a family back in Estonia thus expressed in the way they live,» said Ms Telve.

While in Finland, they save a lot; they don’t eat out or only eat pasta and potatoes. Also, they have precious few hobbies in Finland.

They do not live many guys in one room; rather, they have teamed up to rent a flat or house where all have a room for themselves. «Such people said they had lived through a season of living in shared rooms while working under Estonians. They said the conditions were very bad then, and it all improved when switching to Finnish employers,» she said.

On the one hand, there is the salary allowing the commuters to go on holidays, eat out and take kids to water parks etc.

«It’s also the social guarantees, though: should they lose their jobs, for a certain period of time they keep the same salary in Finland,» she said. Also, they will be drawing very decent pensions and child benefits afterwards.

As pointed out by Heleen Jääger, «commuting may be a reason why Estonia pulled out of the 2008 recession rather fast.» She added that money earned abroad is largely spent in Estonia, having a positive effect on Estonian economy.  

«The commuting cannot be regarded as only a negative, but the aging of the population does mean that every working age person is important for Estonia,» said Ms Jääger. «When Estonia is doing well, and people have work and the salary allows for decent living, the emigration drops correspondingly.»

As underlined to Ms Telve by lots of guys commuting to Finland and back, they feel like human beings in Finland. For those officially working at construction in Estonia, the pay is often the minimum and the working conditions rather poor.

According to the study by Ms Telve, while working in Estonia the guys often go without official vacation, neither do they have week-ends off – especially so when an object is about to be completed. «The commuting-guys say that once they get used to the routine, the three days at home with all the options may be of superior quality as compared to the couple of evening hours they used to have – dead tired, the kids already in bed and the wife exhausted from the day’s toils,» explained Ms Telve.

Ms Telve would underline these are not people who fled Estonia, forsook the fatherland and were lost to Estonia. «They visit Estonia often, they do have a summer home here, and even if single they do have friends in Estonia as well,» she described. «They envision a return, someday – when the wages rise, or for retirement.»