Interior ministry drafting bill to send unemployed foreign workers home

The Ministry of the Interior has drafted a bill which would end the visas of unemployed workers from third countries (non-European Union citizens). This would also give the ministry the power to decide on which professions can and which cannot be granted a short-term work permit.

Ruth Annus, Head of the Citizenship and Migration Policy Department at the Ministry of the Interior told ERR some of the changes are needed for the emergency situation, some for the time after that.

"This bill will create better tools for the government to control the availability of foreign workers in order to make employers prioritize the workforce of Estonian citizens and to create mechanisms for protecting the Estonian labour market," Annus said.

Short-time employment in Estonia is permitted for a person from a third country, who stays legally in Estonia on a temporary basis (for example, on the basis of a visa or visa-free) and whose employment has been registered with the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) before the employment commences. Short-time employment can be registered for up to 365 days during 455 day period.

"Right now, employment in Estonia is permitted for a foreigner who stays legally in Estonia visa-free or on the basis of a tourist visa but we propose that from now on, the state should have a much better overview of the availability of foreign workers and the ability to assess whether the employment of the foreigner is well-founded or not," Annus said.

This change will not apply for people participating in seasonal work.

The ministry is also preparing for some foreign workers to lose their jobs in the near future. According to the bill, long-term visas would then also expire and the worker would have to return home.

The ministry presumes that most people will return home voluntarily but is also planning to change the list of reasons that add to the risk of absconding, for example, the worker not having sufficient resources to return home.

"This will be considered on a case-by-case basis but if there is good reason to believe that the foreigner will abscond and stay in the Schengen area illegally, they may be expelled with the permission of an administrative court," Annus added.

Annus explained that employers must be directed towards using local workers. "If we need foreign workers in one field and there are local workers ready in another, we intend the government to be able to suspend the registration of foreign applications for up to two years," she said.

She said the government would make the decision based on a thorough analysis involving different ministries. But it is not clear from the draft bill exactly what the analysis will be based on.

Helme: Estonia's food security doesn't depend on 300 foreign workers

The right to work in Estonia will expire during April for 300 foreign workers working in the agricultural sector, and the food security of Estonia does not depend on 300 foreign workers who work in agriculture, Interior Minister Mart Helme (EKRE) said on Wednesday.

He said that foreign workers who have not used up the maximum period of short-time work in Estonia will be able to continue working here. 

"A crisis requires rapid adaptation. Due to the emergency situation employers will not be able to count on foreign labor, who are not allowed into the country in order to stop the spread of the virus. Also the situation in the economy is changing as a result of the crisis, and it is foremost important to bring together the employers in need of labor and Estonian residents looking for a job," the minister said.

"Many have asked whether Estonia intends to ease the rules for bringing foreign labor to Estonia and its use. In the current difficult time, when our own fellow country people are short of jobs and there are more people every day who have lost their job, we must support the residents of Estonia. It must be possible for them to take up the vacant jobs," Helme said.

He said it also has to be taken into consideration that several countries, including Ukraine, have significantly restricted outbound movement by their residents. 

"We recommend employers to approach the Unemployment Insurance Fund for advice and recommendations," Helme said, saying that there are over 40,000 registered jobless in Estonia now. Also before the start of the emergency situation there were over 36,000 registered jobless people in Estonia who had been looking for a job for a long time. About 1,500 of them had their last work experience from the field of crop farming or animal farming.

The minister pointed out that the purpose of the restrictions set forth in the Aliens Act is to direct employers to giving preference to local labor.

Foreigners who were not in Estonia as at March 17 will not be allowed into Estonia even if they have a visa or a permit for visa-free stay and their short-term employment in Estonia has been registered. That restriction has been imposed with the purpose of preventing the spread of the virus.

The Interior Ministry advises foreigners who no longer have work in Estonia to return to their home country at the earliest opportunity if border crossing regulations and transport connections enable this. In addition, employers are requested to help foreigners with returning to their home country after the end of the employment relationship. 

"We advise people to turn to their embassy to learn about possibilities for leaving Estonia and returning to their home country. Ukraine, or instance, has helped nearly 200 of their citizens to return," the ministry said.

Third countries in Estonia refers to non-EU, non-EEA citizens. Additionally, citizens of the Swiss Confederation are not classified as third country citizens. The interior ministry's website in English is here.


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Editor: Anders Nõmm, Helen Wright

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