Wednesday saw the so-called cluster law passed recently by the Riigikogu come into effect. One of the key bills in the package was a series of amendments to the Aliens Act which requires third-country citizens without work to leave the country. Ruth Annus, head of the Ministry of the Interior's citizenship and migration policy department, says the main purpose of the amendment is to protect Estonian citizens and residents in the labor market, particularly the agricultural sector.
The changes which have just come into force only affect short-term migrant workers, meaning those who are neither citizens nor residents, and are third-country nationals, i.e. non-EU, EEA or Swiss Confederation citizens, who work in Estonia on a temporary basis.
People who have been issued a long-term visa or visa-free stay for the purpose of employment who lose their jobs must find new employment "within a reasonable time," or leave the country, Annus said in a press released on Thursday morning.
A list of changes can be found at the bottom of this article.
Not directly related to the emergency situation
The amendment, while it formed part of the raft of laws issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, is permanent and will not change when the emergency situation ends, Annus said. Unemployment rose has risen from 14,000 to 50,000 since the emergency situation was declared, Annus said.
Restrictions on cross-border movement in the wake of the pandemic have also hampered employers from employing foreign labor this spring.
The amendment will mitigate the risk of foreigners who lose their jobs in Estonia remaining in the country, or the Schengen Zone as a whole, "without purpose", she said. Her reasoning for this was that foreigners staying in Estonia or elsewhere in the EU may break the law.
The move will also protect Estonians and residents of Estonia in the labor market, she said.
In practice the change mostly affects the agricultural sector, the interior ministry says - although figures given to ERR News by the ministry suggest this is not the case.
The amendment also includes a transitional period intended to help employers to adapt to the new situation and find suitable employees among the Estonian population, Annus said.
Anecdotal evidence from the agricultural sector
To prove her point that Estonians can be used to fill vacant positions in the agricultural industry, Annus gave several examples.
A beauty worker reportedly started working milking cows at the start of the emergency situation in March, fulfilling a long-held desire in so doing, and two music students came back to Estonia during the pandemic and applied for a job on a local farm.
While further details of these cases were not provided, Annus said they were certainly not the only examples.
At the same time, such posts were best suited to Estonians rather than foreigners, she said.
"The Estonian person is smart and adaptable. I am sure that in the current situation, employers and job seekers will find each other better, and the Estonian people will appreciate working in agriculture more."
As reported by ERR News, rural affairs minister Arvo Aller (EKRE) agrees with Annus that Estonians should fill vacant positions and event suggested including students and school children.
Farmers who have recently spoken to the media about the situation have said agricultural work cannot be done by just anybody but needs to be carried out by workers with experience. Someone who has, for example, been made redundant in the tourism or service sector would not have the relevant skills.
Farmers have also said many Estonians do not want to relocate away from cities and their families to work in the countryside.
President criticized changes
On Monday, President Kersti Kaljulaid criticized the amendments to the Aliens Act and said it is not reasonable to change visa terms mid-way through. "A confident country does not operate like this," she said.
The president emphasized these conditions would remain in force after the crisis period has ended which would hinder the economic recovery.
"This will make the difficult situation - which so many companies already find themselves in - even more complicated. The issue has been raised both by separate businesses and business umbrella organisations. Several industry sectors now have the crucial need to engage foreign staff, especially qualified workers and seasonal labourers from abroad, and this need must be addressed if we want to keep the economy and family income growing. Thus, applying additional foreign labour force restrictions will only increase the economic decline in Estonia and prevent the recovery of our economy and expansion of employment options," Kaljulaid said.
Statistics: Who will be most affected?
Last month ERR News asked the Ministry of the Interior which sectors and how many people would be affected by the changes.
A spokesperson for the ministry said: "It is not possible to say how many people in Estonia will lose their jobs in the near future because of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 disease.
"There are 18,540 valid short-term employment registered by the state as of 6th of April. This is not the number of foreigners actually temporarily staying in Estonia right now, but the number of foreigners who have the right to work here on a short-term basis."
The spokesperson also gave ERR News a breakdown of the top 5 sectors which visas have been issued to, which is displayed below. Of these, the majority of short-term visas have been issued in the construction sector and the least in agriculture.
Ruth Annus, head of the interior ministry's citizenship and migration policy department, told ERR News why agricultural workers had been prioritized even though other sectors will be hit harder.
She said: "Agriculture and food production is essential for society and because of its seasonal nature the work cannot be postponed. All sectors, including construction and manufacturing, face economic difficulties and most probably in the new situation of the economic crises the need for foreign labour might decline."
Aliens Act amendment facts
- Short-term migrant workers in Estonia can work under general conditions for a maximum of 12 months out of 15 months, or in seasonal work for 9 months out of 12 months.
- Employers must register short-term employment of a migrant worker with the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA).
- Agricultural employers can retain workers hired and in Estonia by March 17, until July 31.
- After July 31, temporary migrant workers have one month to arrange their departure from Estonia, though the PPA will assess each case on its individual merits.
- Migrant workers whose maximum permitted period of short-term employment has already been reached and who are not continuing to work in agriculture must leave Estonia as soon as possible.
- Visas will not be revoked overnight, though an alien currently jobless will be given a "reasonable" amount of time (generally taken to be one month-see above) to either find a new employer or arrange to leave the country.
- If departure is not possible at present while the emergency situation continues and borders are closed, the alien has 10 days to leave the country once the situation is declared closed. The current expiry date for the emergency situation is May 17.
- Those affected should approach their home country's foreign mission in Estonia for assistance, Annus said.
- Current employers can also provide assistance to help third country nationals return home once their contract is up.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Helen Wright