Government: Third country nationals allowed in for work, study

Potato crops in the field.
Potato crops in the field. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Third country nationals in Estonia will be permitted to enter or remain in the country for work or study, following a U-turn by the coalition Monday morning. A change to the Aliens Act in May had required third country nationals without work to leave the country regardless of whether they had a temporary residence permit, sparking fears of a labor shortage.

The announcement comes as the government had been facing pressure to solve labor issues, particularly in agriculture, as harvest season arrives. There had also been suggestions international students would not be allowed in when the new school year started.

According to Monday's agreement, regarding workers, the onus is on the employer to arrange transport, coronavirus testing, and accommodation, for their third country – meaning non-EU – employees. This includes a 14-day mandatory quarantine period upon arrival in Estonia, for arrivals from countries which have an infection rate of more than 16 coronavirus reported cases per 100,000 inhabitants, in the preceding 14 days.

Further changes include a requirement that seasonal workers, for instance in agriculture, leave the country after six months rather than the previous nine, with a bar on re-entry for a further six months.

The two opposition parties – Reform and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) start an extraordinary Riigikogu sitting at noon. Last Monday, the two parties proposed extending work permits to year-end, something which the coalition referred to as "short sighted".

Concrete evidence of the labor shortage included complaints from strawberry farmers that produce was being left to rot in the fields, without sufficient labor to pick them.

Further requirements for seasonal workers

A minimum wage requirement for third country nationals who are working will be in place, based on the average wage for that sector.

Helme said: "This depends on what is being done, picking berries or something else."

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) said the social affairs ministry, the interior ministry and the finance ministry will make their full proposal on salary criteria for seasonal workers within the next 10 days.

Ratas added a person coming to Estonia to study or work must not be exhibiting signs of coronavirus, and the number of infected persons per 100,000 inhabitants of the country of origin must be less than 16 in order to be admitted.

In cases where the reported infection rate in the country of origin exceeds this, then a 14-day quarantine period is mandatory as well as testing at the beginning of end of this, in conjunction with the employer or educational establishment. If the test at the end of the quarantine period shows up negative, the individual can start working from day 15, ERR reports.

A seasonal worker can work in Estonia for up to 180 consecutive days within a 365-day period, through to April 30, 2022.

Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said compliance with the quarantine rules remains the responsibility of the employer, adding penalties will be applied for non-compliance with the rules.

COVID-19 testing costs are also to be borne by the employer, Reinsalu said.

He added the exact location of where a third country national quarantines, so far as workers go, is a decision for the employer, and could include accommodation establishments or the employer's own facilities.

Changes for third country students

Students from third countries - defined by the coalition as nationals of non-EU/EEA and non-OECD countries - in Estonia, must have a temporary residence permit in order to stay for study. Family members are not covered by this, with the exception of minor (i.e. under-18) children of single parent students.

If a student drops out or is ejected from their studies by the higher education institution, their residence permit issued on the basis of being a student expires within 30 days.

Foreign students must be studying in order to stay in the country, finance minister and new Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) leader Martin Helme said.

"We are significantly limiting the possibility for foreign students to get to Estonia, the possibility for their family members to get to Estonia. If they drop out of school in Estonia, they cannot stay in Estonia - this is a very important point for [our party]," Helme said.

"I think that by doing so, we will remove the health risk concerns we had. At the same time, we will provide relief to those companies that have not been able to solve their labor problem in any other way," Helme said.

Isamaa chair Helir-Valdor Seeder says the agreement helps the competitiveness of Estonian companies,

"We cannot turn a blind eye to the problems that affect our companies in the hope that the labor problems will be solved by themselves," Seeder said, according to a party press release.

"That is why we came up with a proposal that restores the previous sensible controlled migration policy and that benefits the Estonian economy and business," he went on, adding that the coalition's solution had much more long-term viability than Reform's proposal, though details on this were not provided.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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