Still more thoughts on being an immigrant

I was chatting with an 80-year-old Finnish man at Kerava parish’s Katupappila the other day. He had moved to Sweden in the fifties to work in the forest industry. He did not seem to think anything had changed in economic life. ”Send all these immigrants into the forest, there’s plenty of work for them there,” he said. I’m not sure if there is sufficient and suitable work for immigrants in the Finnish forests, but the old man had a point. Traditionally, immigrants used to look for a job as soon as they arrived in a new country, and generally found it. In fact, they had no choice, since years ago there were no welfare safety nets for the unemployed.

It is in everybody’s interests that foreigners do integrate. The best way to do this is widely considered to be through learning the Finnish language. An immigrant studies Finnish from scratch, then studies, for example, a vocational qualification (perustutkinto) and is eventually qualified to apply for and hopefully get a job. The process is thorough, but expensive and takes years.

Let me suggest another approach: integration through work. The workplace is one of the best places to pick up the language. At many workplaces you see and hear language a great deal of the time. The early weeks are difficult, but it does not take such a long time to learn enough to get by. In many cases both the immigrant and their supervisor can communicate in English until the former can speak Finnish sufficiently well. They can also study Finnish in their own time, for example at evening classes.

This approach has several other advantages: the immigrant has the satisfaction and self-esteem of earning money, much of which he will send overseas to his relatives. Working immigrants can enjoy a reasonable standard of living; they pay taxes, too, which benefits society as a whole. Huge amounts of money are saved through not having to fund long and expensive Finnish courses. I might add that I myself learnt Finnish without ever attending a Finnish for foreigners course, so I know it can work. Throughout history people have learnt a language simply by using it and picking it up, without any formal training.

Of course such an approach would not work for everyone. Many immigrants do not speak English, making communication at the workplace very difficult. On the other hand, with a certain amount of flexibility much can be achieved. For example, one immigrant who speaks English or Finnish can translate the supervisors’ instructions for the others who have not let learnt Finnish or English.

Most importantly of all, flexibility is needed from the Finnish authorities and employers. Finland is notoriously bad at recognising foreign qualifications, unless the foreigner happens to come from a conveniently similar country like Sweden with a similar education system. It is extremely difficult to get a job wthout exactly the right qualification. It is a good system for Finns who have been through the Finnish education system, but it is not flexible enough for the needs of many thousands of immigrants. I hope to see considerable changes in the attitudes of the authorities and Finnish employers in the coming years. 

Chris Montgomery

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