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EU unemployment benefit rights to third country nationals raises eyebrows in Estonia

The Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) office on Tartu's Vaksali tänav.
The Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) office on Tartu's Vaksali tänav. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Changes to European Union regulations on eligibility for unemployment benefits to third country nationals who have residence permits could place too heavy a burden on the national welfare system, an interior ministry spokesperson says.

Third country, broadly speaking non-EU/EEA, nationals, can work in a range of different jobs, including as a food courier or taxi driver for one of the major apps engaged in such activities, through to "top specialists," most commonly in the tech field and sometimes at the self-same tech companies that operate the courier apps.

This normally involves obtaining a temporary residency permit (TRP) on the basis of an employment contract.

Now the EU wants to change residency permit regulations such that a third country national who had been working in one of the 27 member states for at least six months can change employers and/or remain resident of that member state during a period of unemployment.

This would entail receiving unemployment insurance benefits on the same basis as everyone else.

Ministry of the Interior border guard and migration department adviser Harry Kattai noted that this could lead to too high a burden on the social welfare system, however.

Kattai said: "After the first six months of employment, a foreign national could either change employers or remain unemployed [under the planned EU regulations change]."

"The unemployment allowance [in Estonia] is currently set at a little over €300 [per month], and if an individual has worked for six months, but may also have family members with them who are not working, it can be assumed that in any case a scenario like that, which is currently being created, may bring a greater burden to the social welfare system than that individual would have contributed to it," Kattai added.

Estonia will remain neutral on the vote of whether to adopt the draft directive, in the hopes that member states might get more flexibility in regulating their labor market, in line with the characteristics of that country's labor market.

The directive sets baseline conditions, but the member state can always provide more favorable conditions on top of these.

As things stand, a third country national obtaining unemployment benefits after six months' working in Estonia is not possible, Kattai said.

An unemployment period of three to six months during a TRP's validity term is permissible, Kattai said.

Once this is used up, the individual can no longer do so, bar leaving the country and returning later on a new TRP.

Top specialists do have a blue card, but this area has not seen much in the way of unemployment, Kattai added.

"We are talking about a dozen people in the last five or seven years," he said.

The blue card is an EU document issued in order to attract foreign talent, ie. highly qualified workers.

Kattai noted that at present, Estonia can decide freely whom to admit and who qualifies for unemployment benefits, noting that not only are there a few bad apples who may exploit the system, but also incoming people from other countries may face unanticipated work or life issues.

Avoiding over-burdening the welfare system could also lead to lower salary criterion (and so lower unemployment benefits) – but again this would be an undesirable outcome.

Ministry of the Interior data finds that 2,000 to 4,000 residency permits for working in Estonia are issued per year, with the number lower during the peak Covid pandemic years.

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Editor: Margitta Otsmaa, Andrew Whyte

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