Seasonal workers are the largest group of foreign workers in Finland. A large number of them work on farms in shortterm employment relationships. The workers are usually young and many are abroad for the first time.
Communication with the employer can be hampered by insufficient language skills on both sides. Because various intermediaries are often involved in organising the seasonal work in the departure country, the workers themselves may lack the knowledge of the labour market rules and their rights in Finland.
For this reason, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and stakeholders have prepared informational material to raise awareness among seasonal workers of their rights. However, the general information available does not necessarily help a seasonal worker experiencing a problem or in need of specific information.
Some seasonal workers work without an employment contract
For these situations, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment commissioned Victim Support Finland to set up a Russian-language advisory service in summer 2021. Most foreign seasonal workers who reap crops on farms know at least some Russian. The experimental advisory service could be contacted by phone or messaging applications. This is because many seasonal workers hardly use their Finnish prepaid mobile phones.
The confidential service was intended especially for those foreign workers who suspect they have been exploited at work. Many were unfamiliar with legal working hours and minimum wages.
Only a few of those who contacted the advisory service knew about the collective agreement applicable to their employment relationship or its contents. In fact, many of those seeking help had not signed an actual employment contract. The Finnish Industrial Union has prepared materials on working conditions for seasonal workers in several languages, but the material failed to reach the callers.
Workers may be cheated by intermediaries in home countries
In many cases, seasonal workers reported problems with the intermediaries responsible for recruitment in their home country. Although recruitment fees are prohibited in Finland, it is very difficult to supervise their collection abroad.
Callers also reported problems with site managers who came from the same country. On farms, site managers are often the only ones able to communicate directly with the employer due to their language skills. As a result, information provided by the employer to the workers is filtered through the site managers. At worst, this may cause problems for both the employer and the worker if, for example, the site manager decides to demand a commission on the worker’s wages.
Seasonal workers without language skills find it difficult to get help alone
Not all calls concerned actual exploitation. Many callers were unfamiliar with the recent legislation that allows seasonal workers to change employers during the season. It was difficult for workers without language skills to change employers alone.
Problems also arise when a dispute between the employer and the worker leads to the latter’s dismissal from the farm without money or a place to go until their return home. These are examples of the precarious situations that may face seasonal workers without language skills in Finland.
Delays in receiving a tax card and unclear rules related to coronavirus quarantines and working during the quarantine also cause problems to workers. Few authorities provide services in languages other than Finnish or Swedish, which in some cases has made it difficult for workers to contact the authorities directly.
Excessive working hours and severe underpayment
The demand showed that there was a need for an advisory service in Russian. The advisory service was contacted 62 times during the summer. Many calls involved more than one person, so the total number of people covered by the service amounted to 142.
Victim Support Finland has assisted in filing five reports of an offence concerning 40 employees. Six requests for inspection and several consultations were made to occupational safety and health authorities. Most of the reports concerned overly long working hours, denial of leave, and even severe underpayment.
Victim Support Finland and the Regional State Administrative Agencies will make an assessment of the experiences gained this summer. Based on the assessment, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment will decide whether the advisory service will be continued. Other measures to prevent the exploitation of foreign labour are also under preparation.
Pia Marttila, Coordinating Senior Advisor, Victim Support Finland
Olli Sorainen, Senior Ministerial Adviser, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment