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Nordic region's anti-social dumping drive

| Text: Marie Preisler

The fight against some Eastern European workers' bad working conditions in the Nordic countries depends on better information.

Abject living conditions, salaries below the minimum wage, illegally long hours and health and safety breaches leading to accidents. This is the reality for many in the relatively large group of Eastern European workers in the Nordic countries who do not know enough about their social rights. That's the conclusion in a new report from the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The report maps the existing knowledge on foreign workers' work environments and working conditions in each of the Nordic countries. It concludes there is widespread social dumping in the Nordic region even though this is politically unacceptable in all of the Nordic countries, as well as a serious hindrance for attracting necessary labour from abroad which the Nordic countries soon will need a lot of because of their ageing populations.   

"The report exposes the great challenges we have with integrating foreign workers," said Bo Smith, permanent secretary at the Danish Ministry of Employment. He was speaking at the launch of the report during at the conference 'Labour Migrant's Working Environment and Conditions in the Nordic Region', hosted by the Nordic Council of Ministers in Copenhagen.

Mr Smith appealed to the other Nordic countries to let the report's bleak conclusion be the catalyst of a joint drive to make the Nordic countries more attractive to foreign labour. This is necessary if the Nordic economies are to compete among the most innovative economies, Bo smith said.

Polish majority

The report forms the first part of a project called 'Foreign Labour in the Nordic Countries'. This is a globalisation project under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers which aims to make more foreigners come to the Nordic region to work. 

All Nordic countries have a political focus on recruiting highly skilled foreign labour. Yet in reality most foreign workers in the Nordic countries are low earners from Eastern Europe according to the report written by Nordic working life researchers on commission from the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The report maps what is already known about foreign workers in the Nordic region and their working conditions. Because of a lack of comparative figures across the Nordic countries, nobody knows exactly how many foreign workers  there are. It remains a fact, however, that in both Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland Polish men make up the majority of this group. In Iceland more than six in ten foreign workers come from Poland. In Finland most labour immigrants are from Russia and Estonia.

Eastern European workers in the Nordic region mostly work in low paid jobs within agriculture, plant nurseries and forestry. Some work as builders or carpenters and many work in the cleaning industry or as taxi drivers, servants or earn a living washing dishes for restaurants.

Uninformed about rights

The report shows temporary workers and stationed Eastern Europeans in particular risk ending up working in unacceptable conditions. The report also busts the myth that Eastern Europeans come to the Nordic region to live off social welfare. A large number of Eastern workers know nothing at all about their rights as salaried workers and know very little about welfare systems. 

"Stationed and temporary workers especially lack language skills and knowledge about their rights and tend to be more willing to accept bad and dangerous working conditions because their expectations are low," says the head of the project Mari-Ann Flyvholm, senior researcher at Denmark's National Research Centre for the Working Environment.

Representatives from the other Nordic countries' working environment authorities delivered the same message. Although most Nordic countries have improved controls in recent years, national working environment authorities often uncover illegal conditions when inspecting work places with Eastern European workers. Their living conditions are often unacceptable and many are involved in serious accidents which result in serious injuries and sometimes death. 

Supervision is complicated, partly because foreign workers often work for foreign employers on a temporary basis in a given Nordic country. It can be very difficult for Nordic authorities to get in touch with these workers and their employers to form a dialogue. Many of them speak no foreign languages.

A need for knowledge

The Nordic Council of Ministers wishes to follow up the mapping of existing knowledge in this area, and has asked Nordic research institutions to bid for a phase 2 of the project to further highlight the extent and character of social dumping within various trades, and to gather more information about how Eastern European workers get their information about salary levels and working conditions in the Nordic region.

Some Nordic employers use private recruiting firms to get workers from Eastern Europe. One task for the researchers will be to uncover what these firms tell Eastern European workers about what they can expect from working in the Nordic region.

The EU Commission welcomed both the mapping and the coming research project during the conference. 

"Results so far show the same pattern in the Nordic region as for the rest of Europe - that immigrants suffer worse conditions compared to other groups in society. It is very important that we prevent discrimination against this group," said Joanna Serdynska, policy officer at the EU Commission's Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities.

She works on EU projects against discrimination and highlighted the need for better data collection and exchange of experience as important tools in this work.

More will arrive

The Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) also sees the need for better knowledge about the problems faced by Eastern European workers. They will arrive to the Nordic region in greater numbers in the future, predicted Martin Steen Kabongo, senior adviser at DI.

"In future we will see far more foreign workers in the Nordic labour markets, and this is a good thing because we need their labour. Generally things go well, but especially within the building industry, plant nurseries and forestry we see problems in terms of salary levels and working conditions for foreigners who are stationed here. We need more focus and knowledge about this," said Martin Steen Cabongo during the conference.

The project 'Foreign Labour in the Nordic Region' is part of a total of seven ongoing globalisation projects commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers. The projects will analyse health and welfare issues and propose measures to prepare the Nordic countries for a rising global competition for labour, by improving people's health and make the Nordic labour force larger and better educated. The projects run until 2012.

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