Finnish trade unions wary about Estonians returning to work from Thursday

Traffic queue at Helsinki harbor's Western Terminal.
Traffic queue at Helsinki harbor's Western Terminal. Source: Martin Dremljuga/ERR

Thursday, May 14, sees the lifting of border closures in Estonia's northern neighbor Finland, imposed on April 11 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. With tens of thousands of Estonians employed in Finland having had to remain either there or in Estonia since then, the border opening has been welcome. However, it may not be as simple as returning straight back to work, particularly in popular sectors such as construction, where workers' living in close proximity, along with the economic effects of the virus, may mean self-quarantine is just that, having to quarantine at home for two weeks upon arrival in Finland.

Merja Vihersalo, a specialist in the work environment of the Finnish service trade union PAM, interprets the government's decision to mean close contacts must be avoided while at work, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

"A lot depends on the type of work being done. If the work can be done solo, with no need to communicate, then quarantine conditions can be met, but it is difficult to follow the quarantine when working, for instance, in customer services or a store," Vihersalo said.

Matti Harjuniemi, chair of builders' union Rakennusliitto, said that his union is aware of many companies where employees will be required to quarantine at home on returning to Finland from Estonia.

Harjuniemi said this employers' requirement is related to concerns that easing restrictions could lead to the spread of the virus among construction workers.

"As Estonian builders know, accommodation conditions of many construction workers in Finland are poor. Many people often live in the same room."

"The virus is [still] spreading, but this apparently does not worry either Estonian workers, or employers who do not seem to have enough money to provide proper accommodation," Harjuniemi added.

Tens of thousands of Estonians who normally work in Finland but who had to choose which side of the Gulf of Finland to remain on in April – or earlier since the requirement to self-quarantine had been in place since late March - await the reopening of the Finnish border on May 14.

Finnish interior minister Maria Ohisalo (VIHR) said early last week that when returning from Estonia, voluntary quarantine must be observed for two weeks. 

However, this would permit travel to and from work, to stores and pharmacies, and eliminated "unnecessary" contact.

The announcement was met with a large-scale demand for ferry tickets to Finland, ERR reports, but the situation remains unclear as to whether Finnish employees will in fact be able to commute right away from May 14.

Wages while quarantining not likely

Both Vihersalo and Harjuniemi said that no wages were likely while having to self-quarantine at home for the first two weeks back in Finland.

"As the employee has gone to Estonia voluntarily and has been aware of the situation, the employer is not obliged to reimburse the salary," Harjuniemi said.

Harjuniemi said he considers the Finnish government's lenient quarantine requirements as not the best move, adding that decisions should be up to individual employers, notwithstanding economic difficulties which the pandemic has brought.

"In Finland, orders are falling all the time, high unemployment is expected in the construction industry, and construction companies are concerned that at least the work that is still in progress should be completed," he said.

Issue works in both directions traveling between Finland and Estonia

The reverse journey, i.e. from Finland to Estonia, also presents the same problem, when coming back to Finland.

Merja Vihersalo said that she understands the situation of those employees who have not for a long period been able to return home to Estonia to see friends and family, and definitely recommends talking to the employer.

"We always recommend that you discuss with your employer before you take a trip, as to whether it is safe or not," said Vihersalo.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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