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Jaak Valge: Foreign labor and the Estonian nation state

Jaak Valge.
Jaak Valge. Source: Riigikogu

Temporary work has been a springboard for foreign labor to move to Estonia permanently. If we believe in the future of our society and the state's continued prosperity is more important to us than short-term gain, we will not use cheap foreign labor, Jaak Valge writes.

Strawberries are grown for sale on approximately 600 hectares in Estonia. According to executive manager of the Estonian Horticultural Association Raimond Strastin, around 800 foreign workers picked strawberries in Estonia last year. Foreign workers whose work permits are about to expire are allowed to continue working in agriculture until July 31.

What is far more important is the fact that unlike last year, Estonia has over 50,000 unemployed as of late May, around 800 of whom have previously worked in animal husbandry, plant production and horticulture. Estonia also has 50,000 students between the ages of 15 and 18, 10,000 of whom have summer jobs. I used to do it and my 17-year-old son is looking for work in the country today.

Perhaps these figures can help put the entire subject matter in context and demonstrate how easily we allow mountains to be made of molehills.

The positive result of the strawberry debate is increased awareness in terms of how foreign labor is treated in Estonia. However, the debate includes a much broader existential confrontation between the supporters and opponents of the nation state in which Ukrainian strawberry pickers play but a modest role.

"Estonians want to feel like white men for once"

If we believe in the future of our society and the state's continued prosperity is more important to us than short-term gain, we will not use cheap foreign labor. According to Raul Eamets, dean of the University of Tartu economics faculty, importing a lot of foreign labor, we will gain in the short term but lose in the longer perspective. "At the heart of the matter is lower salary that allows entrepreneurs to keep costs down artificially. It is a negative phenomenon in terms of innovation." 

In other words – by making cheap labor accessible, the state is favoring more primitive enterprises and holding back salary advance.

Next, we should keep in mind that a considerable part of Estonians have gone elsewhere, mainly to Finland. Data from Eurostat suggests 7.3 percent of Estonian citizens lived in other EU countries in 2018. This is not an inevitable or desirable – as it is often presented – phenomenon of the "age of migration" that citizens prefer. That said, a part of people wish to live elsewhere from time to time, and we can thank our modern world that they have that opportunity.

Johannes Vares-Barbarus wanted to live away from Estonia, but since he did not have the chance, he became not only anti-Estonian but also a communist. However, that did not mean he wanted to live in communist Russia, rather France of Italy.

If everyone wanted to work elsewhere just for the sake of living somewhere else, citizens of both wealthier and poorer nations would roam around equally. That is not the case, however. While citizens of some countries live elsewhere for historical reasons, the rule of thumb is that serving as labor donors is characteristic of poorer countries.

On average, 3.9 percent of working-age EU citizens live in another country (7.3 percent in Estonia). The relative importance of people working abroad is greatest for Romania (21.6 percent) and Croatia (15.4 percent), while only a little more than 1 percent of German and French working-age citizens live somewhere else.

In other words – as put by Indrek Neivelt five years ago – Eastern Europeans are helping wealthier countries by surrendering their labor and economic potential. Over the past ten years (2008-2018) the relative importance of working-age Estonians abroad has nearly tripled. Emigration was fastest in 2009-2013, courtesy of our unsuccessful economic policy.

An acquaintance of mine from Western Europe wrote to me at the peak of the "strawberry hysteria," characterizing use of Ukrainian labor to pick strawberries as "Estonians finally wanting to feel like white men."

I was irritated by this manner of thought, while similar primitive-racist attitudes toward cheap foreign labor are widespread in Western Europe and Russia. Despite assurances made to oneself and others that using immigrant labor to do simpler and cheaper jobs is somehow extremely tolerant, the model only works to deepen inequality between countries.

Ukraine does not need less work and capable hands than Estonia or Finland to become prosperous. Rather, it's the opposite.

I was also irritated by the allusion that "feeling like a white man" means achieving it at the expense of Estonian citizens doing the work of Ukrainians in Finland and elsewhere – people who would gladly return to Estonia if the local salary level would allow them to make ends meet, but cannot, because use of foreign labor is keeping salaries down.

Fertility challenged by immigration

Changes in population makeup manifest even more clearly elsewhere. Professor of demographics Allan Puur said in his presentation to the Riigikogu population crisis study committee that the average number of children born to women in Estonia who were born in 1960-1975 is 1.84, while it stands at 1.95 for Estonians. The latter indicator puts us behind only France and the Nordics, while their higher birthrate seems to be courtesy of their immigrant populations.

In Estonia, on the other hand, the fertility rate of residents with an immigration background is lower than that of the native population because the former group is dominated by people with an Eastern Slavic background, meaning that fertility rates rather follow Russian and Ukrainian patterns. Fertility remains low there. This means that Estonian families are doing good, even though having 1.95 children still remains under the replacement fertility rate. That said, considering natural population trends, the relative importance of Estonians in the population would still grow, while more successful integration of the immigrant population would work to accelerate the nationwide fertility rate.

However, both trends are called into question by immigration. According to fresh data from Statistics Estonia, over 18,000 people moved to Estonia, while over 14,000 were born in Estonia in 2019. Immigrants outnumbered emigrants by some 5,500 people. Whereas net migration in terms of citizens of other EU member states was more or less balanced. The newcomers are from elsewhere.

Migration data is based on the residence index, meaning that it usually does not include short-term labor. Positive net migration was made up of around 700 Estonian citizens, over 1,400 Ukrainian citizens, over 900 Russian citizens and around 2,500 citizens of other or unknown countries moving to Estonia.

The Police and Border Guard Board's preliminary residence permits statistics suggests these "other or unknown" countries were mainly India, Belarus, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey. Citizens of these countries have largely been given a residence permit for the purpose of university studies that – as we know – often means people coming to work here. Family migration from these countries, meaning family members coming to Estonia to live with immigrants who first came to study here, has also grown in recent years.

While residence permits for Eastern Slavic immigrants are usually issued for working and family migration. This means that temporary work has served as a springboard for permanently moving to Estonia.

In summary, statistics suggests that the weight of Estonians in population – despite Estonian families' efforts – has been decreasing in recent years. Of course, this constitutes inertia of earlier migration policy, but if the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) cannot overturn the trend of the relative importance of Estonians falling in the future – even now, when tens of thousands are looking for work in Estonia – there is no justification for EKRE continuing in the coalition.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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