Estonia can admit no more foreign workers

Tiina Kaukvere
, reporter
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Photo: Politsei- ja piirivalveamet

The Police and Border Guard Board predicts that the foreign labor quota will be met next week and all other applicants will have to be turned back before the year is half over. On the other hand, enterprises have started to develop illegal schemes for the sake of cheap labor.

“We have no other option but to reject residence permit applications”, said Liis Valk, chief expert of the Police and Border Guard Board identity and status office.

Just as last year, the labor migration quota in 2017 is 1,317 individuals or 0.1 percent of Estonia's permanent residents. This quota was met for the first time in history last December and dozens of applicants had to wait for the next year. The Board therefore predicted that the quota would be met this year as well.

“Labor migration has increased even more than we could foresee”, Valk admitted.

The Police and Border Guard Board has already issued some 900 residence permits for workers and over 300 applications are being processed. Predominantly skilled laborers are applying; construction and factory workers and seamstresses.

“The quota will probably be met next week by the applications currently being processed. Therefore there is no point in submitting further applications”, the chief expert said.

There is no quick relief to the situation. “Whatever the solution will be, it cannot happen quickly, since it would require amending the Aliens Act. This is a policy decision”, Valk said.

There is the opportunity of registering foreign workers for a short period. Short-term work (up to nine months per year) is not regulated by the quota. “This solution is only for those who have not used the option before. Generally employers use the short-term work option first and then start applying for residence permit (for the worker)” Valk added.

A scheme has begun to spread in Estonia recently for evading both the quota and any registration for work. “Enterprises have emerged, which try to avoid paying the required wages”, said Indrek Aru, head of the Northern Prefecture's border and migration monitoring service.

In order to protect Estonia's labor market, an alien registered for short-term work has to be paid at least Estonia's average salary (average gross salary is currently more than 1,100 euros). There are also qualification standards. But Ukrainians, Moldovans and Belarussians are sometimes willing to work here seven days a week for 300-7000 euros.

“People are hired in some other EU country, for example Poland, and then apparently sent to work in Estonia, while they are paid according to other country's rules”, Aru explained.

For example, according to documents a Ukrainian has a contract with a Polish enterprise, but he is sent to work at a construction site in Estonia the same day.

“As I asked him he said something like “I have never worked in Poland, I had no idea about a contract with a Polish firm. They told me that I would work in Estonia””, Aru described the scheme for evading the payment of the required salary. Moreover, the state loses tax revenue-

“This is the most worrying aspect, since we essentially do not know, who work in our country”, the official added.

There is an especially remarkable case, when one person brought more than 260 aliens to Estonia through Poland. This amounts to one fifth of the immigration quota. “I dare say that there may be some thousand individuals, who have been brought here that way, but making such estimates is a thankless job. We have identified some 400 aliens, who have entered using that scheme”, Aru said.

The firms are caught generally during raids of the Police and Border Guard Board, Tax and Customs Board and the Labor Inspectorate.

The number of violations involving foreign labor is generally on the rise. While the Police and Border Guard Board had some 40 cases concerning the violation of working conditions in five months of last year, this year's number has reached 140 during the same time. “We do not yet know what this year will bring”, Aru admitted.

Valk added that many people have probably noticed foreign workers at construction sites, but not all these people are in Estonia illegally. “The registration of short-term labor has steeply increased as well”, she said.

The quota regulates business and labor migration from the third countries. Investors, start-up entrepreneurs and other staff of the information and communication technology sphere were recently exempted from the quota. The quota does not concern US and Japanese citizens or aliens entering to live with a spouse or a close relative, who enter Estonia to study or engage in scientific research. The quota does not concern refugees either.