Riigikogu passes bill easing entry of Ukrainian refugees into labor market

A Riigikogu sitting in progress.
A Riigikogu sitting in progress. Source: Patrik Tamm / ERR

Amendments to Estonia's main immigration law which had been on the table for over a year-and-a-half and across two administrations, and whose provisions required altering to take into account the arrival of Ukrainian war refugees in Estonia, passed its final Riigikogu reading on Monday, with 61 votes in favor and 30 against.

The amendments to the relevant law, the Aliens Act (Estonian: Välismaalaste seadus) will guarantee Ukrainians who have fled the Russian invasion of that land and obtained employment in Estonia 80 percent of the sector's average wage, and will extend work permits to them – this will also apply to Ukrainians also in-country in Estonia on February 24 when the Russian invasion began.

Reform Party MP Toomas Kivimägi and chair of parliament's constitutional committee , told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Monday that the bill: "Grants Ukrainians who worked here on a short-term basis to a maximum of one year to extend that to three years. I think this is a very important and fundamental change. Thanks to this, those Ukrainians who are here and can't go back won't be dependent on Estonian taxpayers' money, but can continue to work."

Sixty-one MPs voted in favor of the bill on Monday, 30 against, at the 101-seat Riigikogu, while three members abstained.

The 30 votes against came from the two right-wing opposition parties, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa, whose MPs were joined by Oudekki Loone (Center).

EKRE chair Martin Helme said the law change will result in the stagnation of the Estonian economy, a fall in tax revenue and a flood of Estonia with cheap labor – arguments his party had made against the mass employment of third country immigrants, including from Ukraine, prior to Russia's invasion.

Helme also asked President Alar Karis not to give his assent to the law.

Helme said: "Perhaps we won't have an innovative economy anymore, we won't have a high-wage economy anymore, and we will no longer have a highly competitive economy. This will all serve to make us poorer."

Toomas Kivimägi rejected this and said fear of a growth in immigration was unjustified.

He said: "There are the fears that somehow more people will arrive from third countries as a result of this bill, which is not true. From Ukraine, yes, that is an exception, but there are still quotas for [other] third countries still in place. No one has changed these quotas."

"As to this malicious slander that this will now open the doors to everyone, not so," he added.

Eduard Odinets, an MP from the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SDE) said he and his party voted in favor of the amendment because it helps Ukrainian refugees to find work in Estonia, though qualified this by saying the bill does not sufficiently protect local workers' salaries.

Odinets said: "The government should have submitted two bills. In addition to helping refugees quickly enter the Estonian labor market, the wage conditions for foreigners should have been dealt with separately so as not to do affect our own employees unduly."

Martin Helme subsequently posted on his social media account the claim that the bill had been passed in violation of the law, by making changes after the second reading (of three) had taken place.

The bill's explanatory memorandum states that Estonia's immigration policy on the one hand aims to facilitate the settlement of foreign nationals who provide greater added value to society as a whole and, on the other, aims to prevent the abuse of residence permits and visas, and of illegal immigration, to ensure public and national security.

The bill was initiated in September 2020 by the previous Center/EKRE/Isamaa administration, but ground to a halt last November. Russia's invasion of Ukraine starting in late February and the ensuing flight of refugees, including over 29,000 into Estonia to date and who are planning to stay here, led to the late amendments to the bill to take into account the need to permit war refugees to enter the labor market more easily.

The third reading and vote had been due to take place last week, AK reported, but this was postponed at the behest of the constitutional affairs committee.

Estonia's third-country migrant quota for 2022 has been set at 1,311.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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