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Fewer Estonian workers found on Finnish construction sites

Improved wage levels at home have stemmed the tide of workers heading north across the Gulf of Finland

Fewer Estonian workers found on Finnish construction sites
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By Pasi Anteroinen
      Igor Ivask, from Tartu in Southern Estonia, is one of the thousands of Estonian construction workers who have come to find work in Finland.
      But things are changing: the wage-level in Estonia is heading upwards and there have been adjustments to the taxation of foreign rental labour in Finland. The belief now is that some of those Estonian construction crews will stay at home and find work on sites in their own country.
      Ivask has worked in Finland on large construction projects and on private detached house building sites alike.
He did his first tiling and parquet flooring jobs in Finland through an Estonian manpower rentals company.
      This proved to be a short stint, since the company didn't stick to its promises. "When two-thirds of the salary went to other hands, there really wasn't much sense in doing the work", he recalls.
In order to ease the paperwork and cut through some of the red tape, he set up a company in Finland along with friends.
      Initially the most difficult thing was getting a foot in the door. Gradually they built up a network of contacts, however, and one job has led to another. Now they have no shortage of work, mainly in the Greater Helsinki area.
      In principle, Finnish salaries apply in Finland, but employers still often offer Estonian labourers less in their wage-packet, because they know from experience that many of the Estonians will take the contract anyway, says Ivask.
      He also notes that illegal work "off the books" is offered in Finland just as it is in Estonia.
On construction sites, particularly in the metropolitan area, the attitude towards Estonians has always been up-front and businesslike. There have been no problems with working language, either.
      But the crossings on the ships between Finland and Estonia - particularly the return trips home - are tough going.
      "On the ships you get these drunken workers showing off their new-found wealth, and it's embarrassing."
      For this reason, Ivask prefers short gigs.
      "A typical contract might last three weeks. After one of them I won't travel home, but my wife may come over instead for the weekend."
All of this could be on the wane, however. Wage-levels in Estonia are rising fast. Last summer a good many construction workers were already calculating that the price differential for a contract per square metre was no longer so great that it paid to travel abroad to do the work.
      Travelling labourers have to factor in a good many other costs, like accommodation, ferry tickets, and the higher cost of living faced here. "And of course there is the yen to be at home rather than living out of a suitcase."
      In addition, ‘brown envelope wages', or black market labour remains a widespread habit.
      Again last summer, the Estonian tax authorities carried out snap raids on contractors' offices on selected building sites, and according to Ivask they turned up envelopes marked with employees' names.
A good deal more can be divined about the real level of wages paid and the demand for construction workers in Estonia from the rise in the cost of living and of building.
      According to a Global Property Guide study published at the beginning of this year, the growth in prices for detached houses in Estonia was running at the fastest level anywhere in the world - as much as 54 per cent year-on-year.
      The Finnish figure by contrast was 8 per cent. Then again, analysts believe the feverish Estonian real estate market is set to cool down somewhat.
      In the view of those in the business, the rise in prices has been fuelled by increased costs for plots of land and for labour, but other building costs have also played their part.
Estonian construction labourers working gigs in Finland have had their life made easier since last May, since when they have no longer needed a work permit here.
      Ivask says the change has also brought its own problems. A good many more gold-diggers set off for Finland immediately after the May changeover, in search of easy money. These jobs dried up pretty quickly, however, as the skills of the workers were not up to the work.
      "All the same, guys like that can easily queer things for the rest of us and ruin the general reputation", says Ivask.
From the beginning of 2007, the position of migrant workers changed once again, after amendments to the tax practices such that tax is now withheld on foreign hired labourers in Finland, even on those working short piece-work contracts.
      Estonians are now thinking long and hard about whether it is worthwhile to leave. One of their fears is that they will have to do all the leg-work themselves, collecting all the necessary receipts and dockets from Finnish authorities.
      Ivask hopes on the other hand that the taxation will dampen the enthusiasm of the gold-diggers, in that they will not think it worth their while to go through all the bureaucratic hassle.
      For his own part, he believes he will continue working in Finland for the foreseeable future. "The Finns are a nice bunch and I've made friends here outside of work. When I go back home, I even start to miss the Finnish rye bread."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.2.2007

More on this subject:
 FACTFILE: 12,000 Estonian construction workers in Finland
 Biggest impact will be on builders of small properties

Helsingin Sanomat

  20.2.2007 - THIS WEEK
 Fewer Estonian workers found on Finnish construction sites

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