By Joel Alas
TALLINN - The process of bringing foreign workers to Estonia is to be streamlined under a plan to ease the country’s worker shortage.
The quota of foreign workers will be doubled to about 1,300 and the bureaucratic paperwork slashed by November under an Economy Ministry proposal.
Economy Minister Juhan Parts said the bureaucratic simplifications were an obvious solution to give companies faster access to skilled labor.
Employers have welcomed the proposals, but said they did not go far enough in addressing Estonia’s shortage of low skilled workers.
Parts told The Baltic Times that the proposal would be before Parliament by November.
“Diminishing bureaucracy will make it much easier for entrepreneurs to use labor from third countries,” Parts said.
“The changes have broad consensus from both business and most political parties.”
He said it was “unacceptable” that “good qualified brains” were having difficulty entering the Estonian labor market.
However, he stopped short of opening the borders to low-skilled workers, saying that employers should look to hire from the 380 million available workers within the European Union to address their staff shortages.
“This is not a liberalization of our immigration policy. We don’t want to see millions and millions of third country workers here,” he said.
Employers seeking long-term permits for workers will have to commit to paying a salary of at least 1.24 times the average Estonian salary, which currently sits at 9,600 kroons.
Those applying for six month permits will have to pay their workers the average salary for their sector, Economy Ministry executive officer Sille Rossi said.
“Now we have no certain and clear criteria for permits. When an employer applies, they don’t know what basis we make our decision on,” Rossi said.
“These changes will make it easier and clearer – if they pay higher salaries, they can bring employees.”
The quota of foreign workers allowed will be doubled. Currently, the quota is set at 0.05 percent of the population, or about 650 people. This will be raised to 0.1 percent of the population.
The bureaucratic nightmare of submitting multiple documents to several agencies will also end. Rather than seeking approval from both the Economy and Interior ministries, applicants will only need to approach the Interior Ministry.
Currently, an employer must wait two months to show there are no suitable candidates in the Estonian workforce if applying for a long term permit. This will now be cut to three weeks.
The changes were prompted by loud protests from employers, some of whom threatened to relocate their businesses if staff could not be found.
Rossi said a ministry survey of businesses found the need for foreign workers was 1,500, a figure that showed the current quota was unacceptably low.
The reforms also include the deletion of an exemption clause which allows some employers to dodge quota and salary requirements. “Now that this has been canceled, the quota has to be higher,” Rossi said.
Marcela Furlongova, director of foreign labor employment agency Getwork, said the paperwork simplification was long overdue.
“At the moment, the system is really complicated. Applicants have to give their passports four times to different places. There should be just one application. So these changes will definitely help a lot of employers who have to spend a lot of money on lawyers dealing with this,” Furlongova said.
She said there was a backlog of experts trying to get permits, with one company waiting from March 24 this year to approve the employment of a specialist.
But the reforms would not be enough to satisfy the demand for workers to fill manual factory jobs, Furlongova said.
“Why should a foreigner be paid 1.24 times the local wage? That’s crazy. That will promote jealousy and fighting between local workers and the foreigners.”
Rather, she said it would be fairer if employers were obliged to take responsibility for housing guest workers.
“I don’t think the minister knows the real story in production. We are not dealing with engineers here. We have many employers who need workers to do basic manual jobs.”