Employers critical of interior minister's restrictions on foreign students

An ad for the Estonian National Opera on Gonsiori Street.
An ad for the Estonian National Opera on Gonsiori Street. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Employers' associations have sharply criticized Minister of the Interior Mart Helme's (EKRE) urgent planned changes to the Aliens Act and Study Allowances and Study Loans Act, finding that these changes would damage the competitiveness of Estonia's economy and higher education, violates the ensuring of equal opportunities, prevent foreigners from integrating into Estonian society and encroach upon a realm that does not fall under the remit of the Ministry of the Interior.

A bill put forward by the interior ministry wants to stop foreign students working more than 16 hours a week, sets a minimum wage requirement matching the average salary for graduates who say in Estonia and the labor market, and plans to restrict long-term visas for family members.

"In short, we believe this is a bill that sows distrust and imposes disproportionate restrictions and will hold back economic development," the Estonian Service Industry Association said, commenting on the bill.

"We find that a condition for foreign students as potentially high-potential talents coming to Estonia and contributing to the Estonian economy is the establishment, not the restriction, of equal opportunities," said the Estonian Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications (ITL). "In the future, highly educated specialists will generate higher value-added, and will thus generate more tax revenue for the state."

The Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KTK) likewise submitted four pages' worth of objections and proposed changes to the bill, and University of Tartu Student Council member Allan Aksiim spent three pages questioning the validity of claims included in the bill.

Limiting foreign students' work hours

The interior minister wants foreign students studying in Estonia on the basis of a residence permit to work a maximum of 16 hours per week. Employer representatives, however, strongly discourage this plan.

"The Chamber of Commerce is categorically against imposing limits on foreign students' work hours," the KTK said, adding that the size of the problem which would allegedly be addressed by restricting working hours to 16 per week remains unclear.

Current legal provisions already prevent foreigners who have come to Estonia to study from only working, as their residence permits would be revoked if they do not fulfill their curriculum. Such a low limit is likewise unreasonable, would reduce the state's tax revenues as well as doesn't serve the interests of either university students or employers, the chamber added.

The ITL agrees and has called for the implementation of such a restriction to be given up. The Service Industry Association likewise considers current provisions sufficient, adding that by restricting employment, foreigners' integration into Estonian society would be impeded as well, increasing the chances of foreigners remaining within the confines of their own ethnic group as well as under-the-table work.

As the bill also plans to abolish the payment of need-based financial aid to foreign students studying in Estonia on a fixed-term residence permit, the university student body representative also asked whether the Ministry of the Interior or some other government body intends to establish an alternative support measure that would allow foreign students to fund their studies in Estonia.

Average wage requirement for new employees

Likewise, the target of criticism is the interior minister's plan to implement a requirement that foreigners who have obtained a vocational education or higher education degree in Estonia and are applying for a fixed-term residence permit for the purposes of employment must earn wages equal to at least Estonia's average wage.

"We'd like to draw attention to this clear disregard for the Estonian economy's patterns and data," the Estonian Service Industry Association said. "In certain economic activities and professions, it isn't even possible to pay citizens the average wage, and a structural labor shortage will grow, employers' dissatisfaction will increase, and competitiveness will decline — the Estonian economy as a whole will suffer. This requirement will also preclude the possibility of a student beginning their career in Estonia — if you can't work during school, after graduating it is very difficult to find a job paying at least the average wage."

The ITL doesn't support this proposal either.

"We believe that it is entirely understandable and expected that someone who has only just graduated and is only just beginning a career in their field may initially earn less than the average wage," the ITL said in its call for the ministry to abandon this planned change. "We find that the state's current policy should be preserved, according to which those who have completed their education in Estonia should be eligible for simpler opportunities to find employment in Estonia, without any further restrictions."

The Chamber of Commerce joined the other associations in not supporting the average wage requirement, noting that it remained unclear what problem this requirement would aim to resolve and adding that the change doesn't facilitate foreigners remaining on the Estonian job market after obtaining their education in the country.

"The average wage requirement is too strict," the chamber said. "The average wage requirement may prevent foreigners who have earned their degree in Estonia from remaining on the Estonian job market after they have completed their studies. For example, in 2018, some 80 percent of people employed in Estonia earned under the national average wage."

Aksiim said in his own commentary that while the wage requirement is a welcome one, it is discriminating compared with Estonian graduates of the same level of education, as the wage requirement doesn't apply to them.

"Wages are for the labor market to regulate," he added.

Plan to restrict long-term visas for family members

The interior ministry's plan to restrict the issuing of long-term visas to the family members of people studying or working short-term in Estonia has also been the target of employers' criticism.

The ITL considers the reasoning behind the planned change, which alleges that the issuing of visas for the family members of students isn't justified "because a foreigner can live their family life in their country of origin" to be inappropriate and inaccurate.

"We would like to refer here to the fact that an individual's right to the inviolability of their private and family life is set out in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia as being everyone's right," the association said.

"We support current legislation on this matter, and don't consider the items included in the bill necessary that restrict the opportunity of foreigners studying in Estonia and short-term employees from bringing their spouse and children along to Estonia with them under current conditions," the Chamber of Commerce said in its letter to the Ministry of the Interior.

The Estonian Service Industry Association likewise said that it is unfair to force people to choose between work and family and introduce restrictions to this effect.

"'Living their family life in their country of origin' as mentioned in the [bill's] letter of explanation isn't possible while working in Estonia, and it creates a situation for employers and employees alike in which their ability to work is affected, and their work relationships (in addition to family relationships) suffer," the association said.

Restrictions hamper integration, say associations

In their comments, several associations also stressed the Ministry of the Interior's planned restrictions will hamper foreign students' integration into Estonian society, and in some instances may even threaten the legal order.

"The bill's letter of explanation justifies the need to draw up the bill with, among other things, the fact that foreigners who have come to Estonia to study have a hard time integrating into Estonian society and get by here," ITL said. "We find that by imposing restrictions on foreigners' employment and family lives, foreigners' opportunities for normal integration are reduced even further, communication and assimilation outside of one's schools and fellow students is complicated, and their chances of learning the Estonian language in a practical work environment are reduced."

"Implementing further restrictions certainly isn't reasonable," the Chamber of Commerce said. "More restricted working hours reduce employers' interest in and opportunities to offer foreign students jobs. As a result, foreign students may end up with fewer chances to practice their Estonian, become acquainted with Estonian work culture, expand their professional network with locals and gain experience working in Estonia."

"Based on the results of the last times similar restrictions were imposed, we can assume that this restriction will increase the risk of crime — working under the table, the state's administrative burden will increase, etc.," the Service Industry Association said. "Implementing such restrictions could also lead to a situation in which the unregistered employment of foreign students and thus non-receipt of taxes increases."

Consultations would have helped

"We are concerned by the fact that the Ministry of the Interior sent the bill for a round of approvals but did not inform the Chamber of Commerce of this, or ask for our feedback," the chamber said. "As far as we know, the Ministry of the Interior has not informed other employer representative organizations about this bill either. While the majority of the bill involves foreign students and institutions of higher education, the bill will have a significant impact on the employment of foreign students, and involving organizations representing employers would have been only reasonable and logical."

"Our position is that in the case of a bill that will predominantly change the internationalization opportunities of institutes of higher education, reduce their competitiveness, significantly decrease their academic autonomy and freedom as well as negatively impact the labor market and which was initiated and is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, not the Ministry of Education and Research or the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, an intention of development must be drawn up and substantive discourse initiated," the Estonian Service Industry Association.

"We believe that in the case of this bill, there has been a failure to compile a sufficient impact analysis or prior discussion with market participants affected by the bill," the ITL added.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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