The nightmares started for Ibrahem in the summer of 2017.
They were about his work. In them a dark figure was trying to suffocate him.
Things had been fine in the spring. Ibrahem had the weekends off, and the workday had been only nine hours long. Even though the employer had every day left many hours unpaid, Ibrahem didn’t mind. The most important thing was that he kept his job.
Ibrahem had come to Finland from Iraq a few years earlier to seek asylum, and he was worried about being deported. He knew, however, that the cleaning job he had recently gotten would give him a chance to stay.
When summer came everything changed at work. The schools and kindergartens emptied out. The children and the adults went on vacation. No one was present to see what went on in the premises.
The employer organized a meeting in one of the schools. It was the school of Soukka, Ibrahem recalls. The cleaners were told that if they worked hard and without complaining, they would get a residence permit based on their job.
Since that moment Ibrahem had to work seven days a week. He cleaned the schools and kindergartens of Espoo. In the summer the schools and kindergartens have so-called basic cleanings done. First the furniture is carried out. Then the ceilings, walls and floors are cleaned. After that the floor is waxed and the furniture is carried back in.
The work could take days. It was done around the clock, through the night up until the morning.
If the employer gave them permission to rest, Ibrahem and the rest of the cleaners slept at the workplace.
They found a corner and crawled up on the floor for a few hours. One slept in the gymnasium, another in a classroom. Some fell asleep on the table or the couch.
Some were so tired that they fell asleep sitting down.
The cleaning business in Finland is replete with wild companies.
Schools, kindergartens, restaurants and grocery stores are cleaned by immigrants, who are often victims of exploitation. An investigation by Helsingin Sanomat reveals that the exploitation is very wide and often systematic. Many cleaning companies essentially base their business model on the exploitation of workers.
The scale of exploitation is large. At worst conditions are inhumane and reminiscent of human trafficking. Human trafficking means that the perpetrator takes control of the victim by using their vulnerable position, for the purpose of forcing them to, for example, work.
Exploitation also means workers cleaning a grocery store for six hours a day and only getting paid for two. Or cleaning a fast food place at night with no pay. Or working for a few weeks as a real estate cleaner and, after asking for salary, getting tossed out.
In its least serious form exploitation can mean different kinds of unjust working conditions, where the employer takes advantage of the workers’ weak position. That is what’s going on when, for example, a large Finnish cleaning company is constantly slightly underpaying its foreign cleaners.
Helsingin Sanomat investigated the exploitation of workers in the cleaning industry for many months. For this article around thirty cleaners were interviewed.
The information in the article is also based on documents from the police, the regional state administrative agency (AVI), the national assistance system for victims of human trafficking, and other officials, as well as on other material, such as messages, voice recordings and pay slips.
Many companies that exploit their workers fall outside the scope of this article.
There are also companies that do the right thing. Cleaners interviewed for this article say that their rights are respected in, for example, Coor, RTK, Lassila & Tikanoja, ISS Palvelut, Siskon Siivous, and Leo Clean. The cleaners have found work with these companies after they have left the companies that exploited them.
Said remembers the strange demand.
He had come to Finland from Morocco and through a friend found a job at a small cleaning company, SMC Palvelut. It cleaned among other places schools and kindergartens in Espoo, Tampere, Kerava and Helsinki.
Right away al-Beaaj demanded Said hand over the transcript from his asylum interview.
“Ibo said that he takes the transcripts from everyone and chooses good workers based on them”, Said says.
An asylum interview reveals many possibly delicate things from the asylum seeker’s background, his family’s situation and his personal attributes, including his sexual orientation. The transcript also reveals the seeker’s educational level and linguistic ability.Four other former cleaners of SMC Palvelut also say that al-Beaaj demanded they hand over the transcripts.
The men have come to Finland in 2014 and after that. In 2015 over 30 000 asylum seekers came to Finland, most from Iraq. That meant a large vulnerable workforce became available to the cleaning business.
It seems apparent that SMC’s exploitation of workers has become more severe in recent years.
Police suspects al-Beaaj and Henriksson of human trafficking and aggravated work discrimination. There are roughly ten victims. Police also suspects the duo of an aggravated accounting offence and aggravated dishonesty by a debtor.
Mira Henriksson sent Helsingin Sanomat a message where she writes that “as an employee I cannot comment on matters relating to SMC, and the investigation is not finished”. Al-Beaaj did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Experts say that many risk factors coalesce in the cleaning field, which makes cleaners especially vulnerable to exploitation.
Cleaners are often out of sight. They mainly work alone and often after closing hours.
Natalia Ollus directs the European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control (HEUNI). She says that the cleaning business has changed markedly in a few decades. Companies outsource their cleaning services with few exceptions. In municipalities cleaning used to be full-time public work, but they too have outsourced the service.
At the same time the number of companies in the field has ballooned.
Cleaners often lack the security that traditionally comes with a job. The work can be precarious, it can is often done on zero-hours contracts or in the position of an entrepreneur.
Ollus says that flexibility can be a positive as well. The cleaner’s ability to keep a job, however, is often linked to their residence permit and the income of their family in their origin country. “Forced flexibility” brings insecurity.
The cleaning field has a structural problem, Ollus says. If the wage and working conditions were better, it would be easier to find cleaners. Those who do the work are often without options and therefore already in a vulnerable position.
Due to a chronic lack of workers, cleaning Southern Finland has been freed of government officials’ assessment regarding the amount of labor available within the EU. Therefore it’s one of the few jobs that enables someone coming from outside the EU to get a residence permit. Cleaning is also one of the few areas of labor freed of this assessment where no experience or training is required of the worker.
For some people, a cleaning job can thus be the only opportunity for getting a residence permit.
Employers are aware of this.
The companies exploiting their cleaners have received contracts from both companies and municipalities. They have been able to continue their operations for a long time, with practically no consequences.
Victim Support Finland (RIKU) has for many years received clients that have been exploited in the cleaning field. Current clients speak of exploitation in over twenty different companies.
RIKU is an organization that is funded by the Justice Ministry and has a legally mandated task of helping victims of crime.
Coordinating Special Advisor Pia Marttila says that clients exploited in the cleaning industry are to a large extent asylum seekers. Asylum seekers have the right to work after a certain period.
Marttila says the chance to get a residence permit is a carrot employers use to lure people afraid of being deported into working in sometimes bad conditions.
“It’s also a big reason why so many of the victims who talk to us are afraid of quitting their work. They still hold out small hope that if they would suffer for still some time, they might get a residence permit”, Marttila says.
“Based on what our clients tell us, employers also extort them with the possibility of a residence permit. The message is that if you complain, I will take away your chance of staying in Finland.”
RIKU currently has over 200 clients who have been victims of labor exploitation. They mostly come from the restaurant-, cleaning- and agricultural fields.
Marttila thinks that media attention paid to, for example, Nepalese restaurants as an example of labor exploitation has been a good thing, but some might have been left with the impression that the issue is limited to them.
“People don’t seem to have a sense of what a large-scale phenomenon labor exploitation is. That’s why it’s difficult to think that a victim might be cleaning one’s own workplace, or work in that company that always manages to put in the lowest bid.”
Over 60 of the organization’s clients come from the cleaning field. The majority of labor exploitation stays hidden, however.
“Clients have said numerous times that there are many people working in the same company, in similar situations, but they are too scared to talk.”
Even among those who seek help only some dare talk to the police.
“Exploitation is so common that clients often have this notion that this is how it goes in Finland. That there are Finns who are in the best position. Then there are those with a residence permit, and they are in the second best position. And those without a residence permit, they don’t have any rights”, Marttila says.
“Sometimes, according to a client, an employer has directly told them that they are paid less because they don’t yet have a residence permit.”
Right at the start of the work, al-Beaaj made it clear to his cleaners how powerful he was. The cleaners’ descriptions of the events corroborate each other.
Al-Beaaj said that he has close connections to the Immigration service (Migri), the police and politicians. If cleaners did as they were told, he would get them a residence permit. If not, he would make sure that they were deported. Talking to the police was futile, because the police was on his side.
Some of the cleaners also had their passports taken.
Sometimes al-Beaaj would drive the cleaners from one worksite to the next, other times they would travel on their own. Ibrahem, for example, cleaned a school in Espoo from early morning to late evening, after which he was taken to clean a kindergarten and a sports hall. The work lasted until five in the morning, and he had to be at the next worksite by six.
The cleaners say that wages were paid infrequently and always for only a fraction of the working hours.
Often the pay was almost nonexistent compared to the workload. Mahmoud for example worked, for the first six months, almost his entire waking hours. He was paid around 500 euros a month. The employer justified this amount by saying that he was doing “an internship”.
Summers were the hardest.
Many cleaners say they recall how hungry they were. Their physical condition collapsed and some of them lost a lot of weight. The employer offered them energy drinks and cookies.
Once, at a worksite, Ibrahem found ice cream in the freezer. He was so hungry he ate it.
Sometimes the cleaners went to the grocery store to get something to eat, if they could afford to do so.
Food had to be eaten in hiding, often in the toilet.
Some of the cleaners lived in an apartment owned by the employer and paid rent to him. The employer limited their movements and forbade them from being in contact with the outside world.
During the summer Ibrahem practically lived in the schools and kindergartens he cleaned.
A few years ago in the summer the cleaners were doing basic cleaning in a school in Espoo, for three days straight with no sleep. The cleaning was interrupted by a guard. The cleaners weren’t allowed to be in the school at night. Police also showed up.
Ibrahem says the thought about talking to the police and telling them what was going on in the school. He was afraid of losing his residence permit, the one that the employer had promised him. He was also scared that the police would be on the employer’s side.
Ibrahem said nothing. Everyone else stayed silent too.
The police left.
Fear of deportation is not the only threshold to seeking help.
Many victims of exploitation don’t know who to turn to. Often the cleaners are not aware of the trade union, and even if they were, they have been forbidden from joining by the employer.
Not all cleaners speak English, which is also why they cannot in practice deal with the trade union, and they often don’t have any contacts in Finland. Mohammed says that al-Beaaj wanted precisely these types of cleaners at SMC.
“Ibo is smart. He interviews you before offering the job, and if you speak languages or if you have Finnish friends, he doesn’t want you. He wants cleaners who have nothing.”
The cleaners were also afraid of revenge. According to them al-Beaaj was often aggressive and threatening. He would refer to information he had discovered from the asylum interview transcripts. He for example said he knew where one cleaner’s family lives.
Rachid says he worked over 20-hour days, but didn’t get any compensation. He says that when he asked for payment, al-Beaaj threatened to kill him.
Said says that on a few occasions al-Beaaj hit him. Once this happened in the car. Mohammed, who was in the backseat, confirms the event.
In 2018 Said finally walked to the police station and filed a criminal complaint. He had worked in rough conditions for three years. Police began a human trafficking investigation, which is partly unfinished.
After the criminal complaint al-Beaaj threatened the others to stay silent, the cleaners say. Mohammed says that al-Beaaj threatened to break the jaw of the person who filed the criminal complaint.
Gradually the cleaners found the courage to talk to the police. They had met an employee of RIKU, who convinced them that in Finland they wouldn’t have to fear their employer and that they had to right to get help from officials.
According to the cleaners they would still be working at SMC if not for the organization’s help.
SMC has been able to continue its operations in Espoo for a long time.
The company used to go by the name Super Moon Cleaning. It was founded in 2008. The next year it got a contract from the city of Espoo to clean many kindergartens. The choice was based on “overall affordability”. Soon the company also got a contract for cleaning a number of schools.
HEUNI director Natalia Ollus says that bidding criteria for cleaning services are often set up so that they increase the pressure for cleaning companies to push prices down.
Ollus thinks that municipalities should also take into account whether a service can actually be done with a given price.
“I would also call for political responsibility here.”
Ollus says that companies and municipalities often lack understanding of the type of exploitation that takes place in the cleaning industry. HEUNI recently published a new guide, which provides advice on how those risks can better be accounted for.
Especially companies could do more to take into account the possible exploitation of cleaners. Municipalities have to abide by the law governing public procurement, so their hands are more tied. They can choose to shut out a contractor if the company has, for example, broken requirements set out in collective bargaining agreements or employment law, or if it can be shown to have made a grave error in its work. Municipalities can also shut out bids that seem too low, if they are unable to get a satisfactory explanation for the low price.
Lawyer Katariina Huikko from the Association of Finnish Municipalities says she doesn’t know to what extent municipalities actually make use of these options.
In theory the law for responsible procurement gives municipalities the possibility of tackling problems, but in practice municipalities cannot do much, says Ollus. The law also focuses primarily on the first supplier. That makes it toothless in the face of subcontracting.
One of the field’s risk factors is precisely the fact that cleaning is often subcontracted out. The more subcontractors there are, the more difficult it is for procurers to understand who is actually doing the work.
Cleaning companies that exploit their workers might get new contracts because the procurer doesn’t get information about things like police investigations, or about the fact that workers have been exploited at the company.
This is not the case with Espoo. The city had been told that SMC Palvelut exploits its cleaners. Avi, the government official in charge of supervising labor conditions, had repeatedly noted the company is breaking law or the collective bargaining agreement, and the company had been the target of numerous criminal investigations.
Helsingin Sanomat interviewed three African cleaners who worked at the company during its first years. The stories are in many respects similar to what Ibrahem and the other asylum seekers have told about the last few years.
Cameroonian Zuzeeko Abeng tried a decade ago already to get the city of Espoo to intervene in the exploitation.
Abeng, who moved to Finland for family reasons, had graduated with a masters of law from Lund University in Sweden, but had been unable to find other work. Abeng cleaned the second floor of a school in Espoo: the corridors, toilets, staircases and classrooms. He quickly realized that he had no chance of being able to clean everything in the given time. It took him about seven hours, but he was only paid for five.
“When I demanded pay for all the work, Ibo said that if I cannot complete the work in the given time, he will get someone to replace me.”
Other cleaners were in a similar situation. Abeng says that al-Beaaj yelled at the cleaners, demanded they work faster and threatened them with firing.
“Ibo knew everyone was scared that if the work ends, so does the chance of getting a residence permit.”
Abeng says he was worried about his colleagues. A Chinese man who cleaned the school’s first floor spoke no English or Finnish and seemed to always be at work.
After around five months Abeng was fired. The official reason was poor performance.
The employer called the police and accused Abeng of not having returned the keys to the school. Helsingin Sanomat is aware of at least three SMC-related incidents where a cleaner that has complained of working conditions has been fired, after which the employer has claimed to the police that the cleaner hasn’t returned the keys.
Abeng wrote a letter in English describing working conditions at the company. He gave it to the school’s principal and told him that cleaners are being exploited at the school.
The message ends with the following words: My experience as a worker at SMC, over the past four months, suggests to me that there is untold exploitation (over-work and underpay) of workers in the company. Unless the authorities carry out work inspections and ensure that SMC workers enjoy all their fundamental human rights to decent work, I would remain worried about the welfare of my ex-colleagues at SMC.
”The principal responded that unfortunately he cannot do anything, since the city of Espoo is in charge of procurement. He advised me to learn Finnish and get a better job”, Abeng says.
The principal gave Abeng a book for studying Finnish, called Suomea suomeksi.
Next Abeng sent a message to the city of Espoo. The city’s lawyer wrote back that Espoo made sure that Super Moon Cleaning abided by the law when it made a contract with the company.
However if somebody alleges in contract period that conditions of employment are not obeyed the City of Espoo has little means to verify these allegations. The City of Espoo has no jurisdiction to carry out a work inspection in SMC.
The lawyer directed Abeng to contact AVI. The official didn’t inspect the company but told Abeng that he could seek his own missing wages in court.
Abeng contacted the legal aid office, because he wasn’t part of the union. They advised him that if he wanted, he could sue the company for wrongful termination of contract.
“The lawyer told me that look, you’re a young guy, why don’t you find a new job and forget about all of this.”
Abeng says he later thought if he did enough.
“I tried to intervene in what the company was doing. I really did. But it all just fizzled away. And the company was able to continue its operation.”
Right at the outset Super Moon Cleaning got the attention of the agency in charge of labor conditions.
AVI immediately received complaints from cleaners, regarding for example unpaid wages. Within a few years there were tens of complaints and actions taken by AVI, regarding for example unauthorised use of foreign labor, unpaid wages and vacation benefits, problems with healthcare and undelivered payslips.
AVI also filed criminal complaints to the police for the suspected crimes of discrimination, extortionate work discrimination, unauthorised use of foreign labor and a working hours offence.
In one of the complaints AVI inspector Katja-Pia Jenu describes the company’s modus operandi as follows: Even though the workers who have filed these claims have only worked at the company for a short period of time, and therefore their unpaid wages have not accumulated much, Avi estimates that, based on the numerous complaints we have received, the operation of Super Moon Cleaning Oy is as a whole based on the exploitation of foreign workers.
In 2012 three cleaners walked to the Helsinki police station and filed a criminal complaint for exploitation at the company. Jenu had by then transferred from Avi to work in the police and began investigating the case.
In a police hearing transcript seen by Helsingin Sanomat Jenu asks the then-director of cleaning services for Espoo, Aija Leino, how the city priced the summer basic cleaning done by subcontractor Super Moon Cleaning.
Did the city have an estimate of how long it took to clean each location, or did they simply agree on the price with the subcontractor?
Leino responded: “We only agree on the work and the price. It is impossible to make a contract about the hours. A professional cleaner does good work in short time. Less professional ones take a long time.”
At the same time as Super Moon Cleaning was exploiting its cleaners, its revenues rose fast. In 2012 they surpassed one million euros. Information uncovered in a police investigation suggests that the company had been insolvent already since 2010, and both Henriksson and al-Beaaj had drained it of funds for personal use. Super Moon Cleaning was placed in bankruptcy in 2013.
A year later the city of Espoo chose the new company of Henriksson and al-Beaaj, SMC Palvelut Oy, to clean in many schools and kindergartens.
In the same year al-Beaaj got convicted for a working hours offense and unauthorised use of foreign labor. SMC Palvelut continued to receive numerous contracts after that. In the years 2016–2019 the city of Espoo paid the company a total of 1,9 million euros.
How is it possible that a company which by all estimates systematically exploited its workers was able to continuously get new contracts from the city of Espoo?
Development manager Aija Leino says that SMC hasn’t cleaned in Espoo “in years”. In fact, Espoo cut off the company’s remaining eight cleaning locations in July last year.
When questioned about the contracts given to the company, Leino says that she “can’t remember things that far in the past” and hangs up.
Director of services for the city Taneli Kalliokoski says that the contracts were cut last year after the city received information of “irregularities” with the company. Kalliokoski says he started in his job recently and therefore cannot say why the company was granted cleaning contracts for a decade.
“Espoo absolutely does not tolerate human trafficking, on any level. We aim to prevent this type of thing in our procurement with all possible measures. Previously we have only looked at the cheapest price, but since the end of last year we have begun using the median price”, Kalliokoski says.
“The cleaning business is extremely competitive, and when offers are made in this environment, they are not necessarily at a level that is realistic for the cleaning company.”
SMC Palvelut is by no means the only company that has been able to exploit its workers for a long time.
Interviews with cleaners bring up more than ten companies.
Their practices are very similar. Often the workers are recruited and supervised by a man with an immigrant background. Customer- and paperwork on the other hand is typically handled by a Finnish-born person. The cleaners are almost all foreigners, to a large extent asylum seekers, and one company might employ tens of them.
Hokkinen Palvelut has been cleaning numerous K-group markets in the metropolitan region, among other places. The company is run by Finn Anna Hokkinen and a man called Mido, who has a foreign background.
Four cleaners say that the workday could last for 8–9 hours, but workers were only paid for 3–5 hours. Sick leave was not tolerated. The cleaners say that Mido cursed and shouted at the cleaners. This is also evident from voice tapes heard by Helsingin Sanomat. The cleaners say that workers were constantly leaving the firm, but new ones came onboard.
Hokkinen and Mido deny the claims of exploitation. Mido didn’t want to comment further. Hokkinen says the claims came as a surprise, because the company abides by the collective bargaining agreement, according to her.
Another company systematically exploiting its cleaners operates in the metropolitan region. It is a group of companies that includes at least the following: Dysnomia, DSN, Cashmatic, Staffig Group, Starstaff, Sanitex and CMT Palvelut. Some of the companies have gone bankrupt. Cleaners have been paid from different companies, and they have also been treated as “entrepreneurs”.
Cleaners for the group of companies have cleaned the K-Citymarket in shopping centre Sello in Espoo, as well as other K-group markets in the metropolitan region and beyond. They have also cleaned kindergartens in Espoo.
Four cleaners from the company speak independently of significant underpayment. The cleaners say that wages were paid for only a small part of the hours worked. On a voice recording heard by Helsingin Sanomat a cleaner can be heard pleading to get his salary. There were no holidays and the cleaners had to work even when sick, or otherwise Niklaus Sauvola threatened to “fine” them.
A few years ago one of the cleaners filed a criminal complaint. The man says he told the police about how Sauvola’s companies exploit workers.
“The police wrote everything down and promised to call when the investigation progresses.”
The police have not called, the cleaner says.
Another cleaner also filed a criminal complaint. The police treated the case as a civil law payment dispute, not a crime, and didn’t start an investigation. This is typical.
Katariina Sauvola and Niklaus Sauvola say that working conditions at the company abide by the law and the collective bargaining agreement. Niklaus Sauvola says that he has “trained cleaners in workplace safety”, but that he hasn’t had anything else to do with the cleaning work. When asked why his signature is one of the cleaners’ work contracts, Sauvola responds that ”sometimes he was given the permission to sign contracts”.
Niklaus Sauvola says that the people behind the exploitation claims are “a few dirty fucking refugees, who have been taken good care of”.
DXB Services on the other hand has based its business model on a fast cycle of exploitation. When the asylum seekers the company has recruited have after weeks or a few months asked for wages, the company has said that the cleaner never worked there, tossed them out and taken in another asylum seeker.
The company has been a subcontractor for the city of Helsinki.
Chief executive officer Abdun Setar says that all the workers have been paid.
“Obviously I deny these claims.”
Some of the cleaning companies work out of Estonia, which makes it more difficult for Finnish officials to intervene.
Property cleaning company DMX rents cleaners from an Estonian company. An Algerian cleaner says that when he applied for work at DMX, he was told to contact an Estonian company called SiPe Ou.
The cleaner became an employee of the Estonian company’s Finnish sister company, but at the worksites he wore the DMX-shirt. The Estonian company was directed by Sirje Kännola, DMX was directed by Bader Slimani.
The Algerian man says that DMX cleaners worked for 10–12 hour days at a car wash and at other worksites, but they were only paid for 5–6 hours. When the man complained about his wage, he was fired.
AVI filed a criminal complaint about the case to the police in December 2017. The police did not investigate in time and the right of judicial action expired a year ago in April.
HS was unable to reach representatives of either SiPe Ou or DMX.
Some companies that break the law and collective bargaining agreements also show up in Avi’s inspection reports. For example a company called Consania was discovered to have numerous problems from the payment of salaries to healthcare to discrimination.
It is often difficult for AVI to discover exploitation. Cleaners are too scared to talk, and on paper everything might be fine, at least in part.
If for example there is no accounting of working hours, it is almost impossible for AVI to figure out if cleaners have been overworked.
Even when exploitation is discovered, AVI’s ability to take action is weak, says inspector Katja-Pia Jenu.
“Our powers to act are extremely minimal and completely inadequate. It feels corny that we only have the right to give guidance, if we know, that the employer has no intention of abiding by it.”
AVI can also threaten the employer with a penalty payment for breaking the ban on discrimination, if the employer does not pay his foreign workers according to the law. The penalty is only a few thousand euros, and the employer avoids it if he fixes the salary to abide by the collective bargaining agreement. AVI cannot demand backpayment of wages.
“The risk for the employer is nonexistent: it’s basically that you have to, in the future, pay the salaries that you should have been paying already”, Jenu says.
“And in the worst case the employer can also send us fraudulent pay documents.”
Super Moon Cleaning is a good example of AVI’s weak powers. When the agency discovered clear violations of the law and the collective bargaining agreement, such as problems with payment, it could only give the company instructions to fix the problems.
Jenu says, as her personal view, that AVI should be given the right to issue administrative penalties to companies that break the law or collective bargaining agreements. She says that the penalty has to be large enough in order to work.
AVI can also file a criminal complaint to the police for work discrimination or extortionate work discrimination, if it for example discovers significant underpayment.
This is often a hard road. The complaints about Super Moon Cleaning are a good example. The cases fell at the prosecutor’s desk. Prosecutor Sinikka Paasivirta estimated that the evidence was contradictory and that the cases were civil law payment disputes.
Jenu says this is typical. If the criminal investigation even lands at the prosecutor’s desk, it often falls due to contradictory evidence. And evidence is often contradictory, if police does not investigate the cases well. It is not difficult, for example, for the suspect to find people to testify in return for money. One Egyptian man who used to clean for SMC says that al-Beaaj paid other cleaners so they would testify against him in court.
An even bigger problem is that police doesn’t necessarily even start a criminal investigation. Jenu says there’s a very big likelihood that even if an employer is discovered to have been exploiting cleaners, they will never face consequences.
“Almost always it’s said that there is not enough evidence or that it is a payment dispute. When we know that in practice the police doesn’t seem to have enough resources to even investigate human trafficking, lesser crimes might have no chance of success.”
Special Advisor Pia Marttila of RIKU sees the same problem in her work.
Many of her clients’ criminal complaints get discarded right away, meaning the police doesn’t even think there are grounds for suspecting a crime.
If the investigation has been started, it is often ongoing even after years. Or police has decided to stop the investigation, or the prosecutor has decided to drop the charges.
“A worryingly large number of clients has said that they have tried to file a criminal complaint, but it hasn’t been received. Sometimes it has been received and the client has been told that we will get back to you, but nothing has happened even after a long wait.”
The problem doesn’t just have to do with work discrimination crimes. Marttila says this has also happened in many cases of human trafficking. In one case a victim who was unable to speak Finnish or English went to the police station with a sign saying he works and does not get paid.
Police did not investigate the case, as they considered it to be a civil law payment dispute, and told the victim to talk to the trade union.
“We are very worried that many clients have talked about a dismissive attitude from the authorities, when they have tried to seek help.”
Some of the victims realize they have been exploited only when the residence permit they were promised is not given, and deportation looms. Some have not dared to report exploitation earlier, because they mistakenly believe that the criminal investigation would label them in a negative way and have a bad impact on their ability to get a residence permit.
Officials might have treated this type of behavior as simply an effort to postpone deportation.
A cleaner that has been exploited is rarely the only victim in the firm. Instead the firm’s business model can be based on such exploitation. But since criminal processes often don’t go anywhere, it stays hidden and the operation can continue.
Employers might reward cleaners who lie for them to the officials, or who stay silent about the exploitation, by giving them a full-time contract which allows them to get a residence permit. At the same time workers who have talked about the exploitation live in fear of deportation. This has happened with SMC Palvelut, for instance.
“It increases bitterness, especially if you have reported the exploitation many years ago and the company’s operation is still ongoing. Many think why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut, maybe I would already have a residence permit and I could begin a normal life in Finland”, RIKU’s Marttila says.
She thinks it would be important to enable those labor exploitation victims that are the injured party in a criminal investigation to get a temporary residence permit. That would lower the threshold for seeking help. Now the permit can only be given to people who were in the country illegally at the time of working.
Also, she says, the residence permit for victims of human trafficking should be granted immediately, if police suspects the applicant to be a victim of the crime. At the moment the permit is uncertain and at times very slow, Marttila says.
This also comes up in interviews with cleaners. One cleaner who worked for SMC has waited for a permit for a year and a half, because Migri did not ask the police in time whether the man is needed in Finland for investigating the human trafficking crime. The man has been forced to live on social security, because he doesn’t have the right to work.
Police has not been given the needed resources to investigate these types of crimes. Marttila says there are many police officers who are interested in the subject and who have gotten a lot done. But specialization has not been made institutional.
”Since the beginning of the year Helsinki’s police has had a group specialized in these crimes. It has already shown that specialization brings big benefits and it is needed”, Marttila says.
Setting up a human trafficking group in the police has also been written in the Finnish government’s program, but so far it has not been given resources. The Police Board has not seen the issue to be important enough to warrant specialization. Due to the government’s demand it has now however named the prevention of human trafficking as one of its priorities.
When good options are scarce, many victims who have already left an exploitative company end up working for another, RIKU’s Marttila says.
Many go through a number of firms that exploit their workers.
One cleaner interviewed for this article, from SMC Palvelut, also began work at a company called Er-Me Siivous. The company used to clean Burger King -restaurants in the metropolitan region, in Helsinki’s Kamppi among other places.
The man worked for four months without pay. On top of that the man who recruited him cheated him out of 2500 euros, for different kinds of “costs” needed by Migri, “taxes” for wages that were never paid and “expenses” for a lawyer that the cleaner never met.
Er-Me Siivous’ CEO Ermin Softic says that he cannot comment on the company’s affairs, “because the company has recently been declared bankrupt”.
The phenomenon of exploitation also goes deeper underground. When criminal investigations don’t progress and cleaners feel like their situation is not taken seriously, word starts to spread. Victims are afraid to seek help, and feel it wouldn’t do them any good.
A cleaner that has been exploited can of course always try to get their missing payments in civil law court. But if the trade union doesn’t help them, they incur great risk of legal expenses.
Some cleaners who have sought help from the Services trade union (PAM) have felt that the union has been reluctant to help them. One Egyptian cleaner said that when he took his case to the union, it took them two years to do anything about the matter.
In 2018 Helsinki’s district court convicted SMC Palvelut to pay the man over 32 000 euros. The sum consisted of payments for wrongful termination of contract, discrimination, unpaid wages and claims for damages. SMC was also obligated to cover the man’s legal costs of over 23 000 euros. The case is on appeal at the district court.
When even serious exploitation is rarely tackled, different kinds of maltreatment, that might fall in a grey area, can be practiced with complete impunity.
One example of this is an extremely shredded workday, where a cleaner does many small shifts over the course of the day. In practice there is very little freetime, but wages are only paid for a small number of hours. One cleaner did five short shifts in one day.
Cleaners might be used as a very flexible workforce. Years ago, one firm had a practice of demanding cleaners to come to the office early in the morning to wait for the employer to hand them work. Three African cleaners who used to work for the company say that cleaners had to wait at the office for an hour or sometimes two, and they were not paid for that time. The cleaners say that some workers were sent home, without pay, if there wasn’t enough work.
In some companies cleaners are treated rudely. Many cleaners for the company Lecator, which cleans among other places the Forenom apartment hotels, tell of shouting foremen and unfounded warnings.
CEO Nina Kajavo says that warnings are only given for cause, and she hasn’t heard of inappropriate behavior.
“I am really saddened if someone has felt like this. If one of our foremen raised their voice, I would be surprised if word of that didn’t get back to me from the cleaners.”
Sometimes the cleaners work as entrepreneurs, even if they were in reality employees. This distinction has caused discussion at, for example, Freska. Some of the company’s cleaners initially worked as freelancers, and if they got good enough reviews from customers, they were offered an employee contract.
With freelancers the employer saves at least part of the costs incurred from employees. According to the law the employer cannot freely choose whether it has similar work done by employees or entrepreneurs.
Freska’s CFO Maria Alahuhta says that the company’s freelancers are entrepreneurs for a number of reasons, among them that they have the right to refuse work.
Cleaners of the company interviewed by Helsingin Sanomat do not see a big difference in the work between freelancers and employees. A cleaner who worked as a freelancer says that he didn’t even dare to refuse work, because he was afraid he wouldn’t get a work contract.
Freska has also for years had problems with the fact that cleaners haven’t had time to have a lunch break, since the company hasn’t separately marked time for it in their schedules. When one cleaner complained about the matter, they were told to eat on the bus on the way to the next customer. The cleaners say there are many workers in Freska, for example from the Philippines, who never dare to ask for anything.
Alahuhta says there have been human errors, but she doesn’t believe the problem has been “systematic”. Freska has started to fix the issues this year.
One company came up more than most, when cleaners talked about maltreatment that falls in a kind of grey area.
SOL Palvelut is one of Finland’s largest cleaning companies. Helsingin Sanomat has interviewed seven of the company’s foreign cleaners. They independently speak of similar practices in different worksites and at different times.
One of them cleaned a high-end hotel in the center of Helsinki a few years ago.
First the man was not given a work contract and he didn’t know his rights. After that he was given a Finnish contract. The man said he doesn’t understand it and he’ll take it back home to his Finnish wife before signing it. He was told that it’s a regular contract and that if he doesn’t sign it now there would be no work for him.
The man was given 15 minutes to clean a room. It was often impossible to complete in the given time, the man says. He was taught that since there is so little time, he shouldn’t for example wash the glasses as guests leave, but just rinse them with water. Often the pace was so hectic that he didn’t have time to eat. Despite this SOL always deducted a 30 minute lunchbreak from his pay.
For some the workload was too severe.
“One woman got a nervous breakdown and began to cry. She said that she can’t bear it anymore”, the man says.
The foreman in charge of tutoring the cleaners told the man that if he can’t complete the work in the given time, he won’t be paid for the “extra” time spent.
The man also had other problems with SOL. When he got sick, the company did everything it could to not pay for sick leave. The man was constantly missing some working hours, evening extras and other extras from his salary.
The man informed the company, but they did not respond and the problems were not fixed. The shop steward also was disinterested.
Many cleaners who have worked or still work for the company speak of similar problems. If workers have complained about their situation, they might have gotten less hours, lost their jobs or otherwise get into trouble.
The pressure to make hotel cleaning more efficient comes from above. Hotels regularly open up their cleaning contracts for bidding, so the cleaning companies seek to push down prices.
SOL Palvelut CEO Juhapekka Joronen says that he finds it hard to believe the claims of problems in the company.
“It might be that we do things right, but then someone thinks that this isn’t fair, or they blow up the whole thing in some coffee room. It might also be about personal chemistry. If there was a systematic problem, I would think it would’ve come out through the shop steward or Avi. We have a pretty good reputation with the union and others”, he says.
Joronen thinks that sometimes problems can also be due to misunderstanding.
“We have a lot of foreigners working, and they may not understand some things. Or then a Finn, who doesn’t really understand our collective bargaining agreement, tells this foreigner, that they can’t do that.”
Natalia Ollus, who directs the research center HEUNI, thinks it’s worrying that problems arise even in big companies, that claim to be responsible.
Ollus and her colleagues investigated exploitation in the cleaning industry already almost a decade ago. Back then she heard very similar stories as the ones showcased in this article.
One Cameroonian cleaner interviewed for this article offers a possible explanation for this.
He says that cleaners are invisible in Finnish society. They are often ignored, or their work gets almost no respect. The man believes that because of this employers also feel like they exploit their cleaners with impunity.
Despite the bad memories of summer nights, Ibrahem is already doing better.
He has found a new cleaning job and says he is treated well. Other former SMC cleaners are also now in a better situation.
Some of them are still bitter that the company is able to continue its operation.
SMC Palvelut got a new contract last year, this time from the city of Vantaa. The decision was based on “overall affordability”: cheapest price 95 points, qualitative criteria at most 5 points.
This summer Vantaa is also being cleaned for cheap.
Do you feel like you might have been a victim of exploitation? You can get help from Victim Support Finland (RIKU) anonymously and free of charge. Contact Pia Marttila at email@example.com or +358406309669, Saara Pihlaja at +358406212443, or Kati Iskala at +358406201062.