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Polish journalist tests employment opportunities in Helsinki - and finds them wanting
Helsinki least inviting of all European cities tested by newspaper team
By Pilvikki Kause in Wroclaw
Helsinki is a rough place for foreign job applicants! Everywhere you go you need to know Finnish, as if it were a conspiracy of some kind. Nevertheless, nearly everyone speaks English, says Aleksandra "Ola" Pezda.
"You can't even get a job as a cleaner without a knowledge of Finnish. I was told that measuring and mixing modern cleaning chemicals is so demanding that English is not enough. They don't really want foreigners here", Pezda says.
She is one of six Polish journalists who were sent to Athens, Barcelona, Dublin, Helsinki, Lisbon, and London to look for work.
Their mission was to portray themselves as ordinary job applicants and to describe conditions in each of the cities in blogs and newspaper reports.
The journalists' reports were part of "Next Stop Europe", a joint project of three major media - the leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the radio station TOK FM, and the television station TVN24. The project examines the implications of large numbers of Poles travelling to other European Union countries to work.
The other journalists found work in a week, but Ola Pezda was the only one to run into a wall. She says that her gender prevented her from getting work as a painter, and she was told that she might get work handing out the free newspaper Metro "sometime later".
At two employment agencies serving foreigners, Eures and Staffpoint, she was told that "nobody will accept an application form" if she does not speak Finnish.
She went around restaurants, called about available jobs, and sat at computer terminals submitting resumes. Of all of the cities under examination, Helsinki was the only one where there was an obsessive need to get all of the personal information about the applicant by e-mail.
"Finns can never come out and just say no. They just smile and promise to call later", was the warning that Ola Pezda got from people whom she got to know in Helsinki.
At one point she tried St. Henry's Catholic Church. In other EU countries, Catholic churches are meeting places where local Poles can swap stories.
The church did not even have the typical "wailing wall" - a notice board for situations vacant and wanted. The only announcement there was a notice for a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. A monthly mass had been cancelled.
Pezda was astounded to see the largest trade union headquarters that she ever seen anywhere. She suspects that the trade union movement might be partly to blame for the negative attitude toward foreigners in the workplace.
Pezda met a number of Polish fitters working in the Helsinki area. She was shocked to hear that they were able to send home no more than EUR 500 a month after taxes and the commission paid to the temp agency.
Pezda emphasises that Helsinki is nightmarishly expensive. Eating is cheapest in student restaurants, but even there it is expensive. In Pezda's blog, Poles living in the Helsinki area list a number of cheaper places to eat, as well as other survival hints, such as baking one's own bread. They know prices to the cent.
What about the way Helsinki women dress? They march around in well-cut dresses as if they were in the film Seksmisja - a Polish cult comedy of the 1970s in which two men wake up in a world ruled by women.
Such a dress was worn by "Ritta" [sic], a hotel manager who suggested that there might be work available as a hotel cleaner. She was the first person in Helsinki to apologise that the application form was only in Finnish. Pezda finds a man picked at random on the street to help get through the labyrinth of the application.
However, the Polish applicant never gets to know if she will finally succeed in her endeavours, as her plane home is about to leave. The hotel manager is "terribly busy" and would not be able to see her before the following week.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.6.2006
PILVIKKI KAUSE / Helsingin Sanomat