The government on Thursday approved amendments to the Aliens Act and the Obligation to Leave and Prohibition on Entry Act aimed primarily at ensuring that foreigners from third countries (non-European Union countries) who have lost their jobs leave Estonia as soon as possible, the Ministry of the Interior announced.
The amendment has been agreed upon by the government but not yet passed by the Riigikogu. It needs to be supported by the majority of members of the Riigikogu to pass into law.
The bill affects foreigners from third countries holding a visa for employment in Estonia or those working in the country visa-free. Should their short-term work permit expire or they end up jobless for any other reason, they must return to their home country as soon as possible, Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) said.
Helme said, in this case, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) can annul a foreigner's visa or visa-free period and order the foreigner to leave Estonia.
The initial proposal to give the government the right to not to allow foreigners to be hired at all in some areas was left out of the draft.
Contingency plan for a long crisis situation
"I recommend those foreigners who end up unemployed here immediately start seeking opportunities to return home, not start waiting for their visa or visa-free period to expire or be annulled," he continued.
It is recommended that foreigners contact their home country's embassy regarding options for leaving Estonia. Ukraine, for example, has helped repatriate more than 200 of its citizens.
The Ministry of the Interior is asking previous employers to help foreigners return to their home countries following the termination of employment.
If a foreigner's visa or visa-free period expires but they are temporarily unable to leave Estonia due to the movement restrictions imposed under the emergency situation, according to the bill, the minister of the interior or the director general of the PPA can grant them grounds for remaining in Estonia through the end of the emergency situation.
"We have also considered what decisions to make regarding foreign labor in connection with possible longer-term, months-long crisis situations, which can hit us in the future as well," the minister said. "In the case of months-long crisis situations, the bill provides for the possibility of the government deciding to grant foreigners working in the country on a short-term basis the right to work for longer than initially permitted."
Helme said, based on the bill, the government can, in the case of a longer-term crisis, decide to extend the working limits of foreigners who had initially come to work for 12 months in a 15-month period to 24 months in a 32-month period.
"But I'd like to stress that this opportunity is very much the exception," he added. "Currently, as we are in the first month of an emergency crisis, there is no such plan."
The interior minister said, in the current difficult times, when there aren't enough jobs for Estonia's own people and more and more people lose their jobs each day, it is necessary to support Estonian residents.
"They must have the freedom to take up available jobs," he said. "We can see that the number of registered unemployed among Estonian residents has increased exponentially over the past month. At the same time, employers have filed applications for the use of foreign labor in similar volumes to the increase in unemployment. I recommend employers look at these numbers and seek opportunities to use more domestic labor. Our people are worth being offered jobs during a difficult time of increasing unemployment."
The Ministry of the Interior recommends employers who need new employees contact the Unemployment Insurance Fund for advice and assistance. There are currently over 40,000 registered unemployed in Estonia; even prior to the start of the emergency situation, registered unemployment stood at more than 36,000. According to the ministry's information, the fund is prepared to forward job offers to job-seekers.
Annus: Foreigners "pose a threat to public order"
Speaking on ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) on Thursday, Ruth Annus, Head of the Citizenship and Migration Policy Department at the Ministry of the Interior, said: "It must be kept in mind that if foreigners stay here and spend money which they could now use to return home, then it can happen, that they remain in the European Union illegally and pose a threat to public order."
Speaking to AK, Helme returned to the idea of banning visa-free travel, which he suggested at the end of 2019. Then, he was speaking specifically about Ukrainians.
On Thursday, Helme said: "We still want to put an end to all these visa-free travel regimes and other visa abuses, it is important for us to keep a proper record of who is here, where they work, who they work for. In fact, it is also important to know how much they get paid and who pays tax."
Farmers have previously said if hiring foreign labor is banned they will not be able to cope.
The bills agreed on today can be viewed here.
Editor: Aili Vahtla, Helen Wright