Labour exploitation needs to be taken seriously
In her job at Victim Support Finland expert Pia Marttila meets clients who have invested a lot to work in Finland. They are prepared even to work round the clock and their biggest fear is of losing their job. Photo: Emilia Kangasluoma.
Pia Marttila is an expert at Rikosuhripäivystys, Victim Support Finland, and in her job she sees the darkest side of labour exploitation and how it is reflected in a dependency relationship where employees are mere pawns.
Service sectors, and especially the cleaning sector, are among those where the risk of labour exploitation is high.
“Apart from restaurants and cleaning firms, individual companies operating in service sectors have come to the attention of Victim Support Finland. Labour exploitation also occurs in agriculture and within the construction sector”, says Pia Marttila, who works for Victim Support Finland as an expert providing assistance to persons who have fallen victim to human trafficking.
Victim Support Finland is approached with questions on all types of exploitation in working life.
“Most of the cases we hear of have already exceeded the criminality threshold and have to do with anything from labour discrimination or abusive discrimination in working life to human trafficking”, says Marttila.
All the cases that Victim Support Finland handles are different, however.
”There are cases where employees have worked for 10 hours a day but have been paid for 5 hours, or an employee working 16 hours a day 7 days a week with no days off or holidays"
A couple of years ago there was a clear trend for employees to be lured into unpaid traineeships. Companies promised to hire employees later on if they worked as unpaid trainees for three months. An employment contract followed by a residence permit were promised, but when the time was up they were not hired. According to Marttila this phenomenon has decreased and nowadays the majority of those who come to Victim Support Finland have “legal employment contracts”. The largest group of clients are de facto employees with a residence permit and asylum seekers. Only a fraction of clients are undocumented.
A murky phenomenon
According to Marttila it is hard even for the authorities to tackle exploitation via labour inspections. Therefore, it can be even harder to spot for a customer or somebody who just sees the workplace from the outside.
“For example, we have come across cases of people regularly having lunch at a particular restaurant and noticing that the staff on duty are always the same. Suppliers are another group who notice if it’s always the same employees or, even worse, find sleeping quarters in the back room”, Marttila recounts.
“Often everything appears fine and all the documentation is in order when the workplace is inspected. But this can be a sign of systematic exploitation. Employers know what things should look like in order to be ok. Then employees don’t dare to report anything either”, says Marttila.
Victim Support Finland has clients who have invested a lot to get a job in Finland. Usually foreign employees will have paid recruitment fees, leading to debts in their home country or are in debt to their employer and are forced to work for free.
“The employer might have insisted that the employee can’t talk about their employment conditions or say that this is the way it works in Finland. Threats can also be used”, says Marttila.
Exploitation creates a relationship of dependency
There are those who think that if an employee is in a vulnerable situation and can speak English, then they can ask for help. That isn’t always the case, and Marttila points out that in order to ask for help you need to understand how the society works and know what you are entitled to.
“Otherwise you are totally dependent on what your employer says. Either you rely on that or perhaps you are scared that your employer will take revenge. Very many people are afraid of losing their residence permit, which might have cost thousands of euros. This leads to a clear dependency relationship where the employee is at the mercy of the employer”, says Marttila.
“You might be working 16 hours a day 7 days a week so as not to risk losing your residence permit."
”Employees who are exposed to this are not in a position of equality and have no way of negotiating their working conditions or pay. I don’t think everybody realises this”
When it comes to the most serious cases of exploitation that Victim Support Finland has come across, the common feature is that employees are not organised at the workplace.
“It is regrettable that there are also large organised employers that do not stick to the collective agreement. We see this with clients who have come out of difficult situations and in the process have got a new job that is better but still not in line with the law”.
“Most clients don’t even know what a trade union is, or if they know, they haven’t been able to join one”, she adds.
Tip of the iceberg
According to Marttila more resources are needed for the police and the Regional State Administrative Agencies to be able to intervene and expose this type of activity more effectively. The cases that come to light may only be the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s rare for people in vulnerable situations to dare to contact either outsiders or the police by themselves, and sometimes people try to contact the police but are turned away”, she adds.
Marttila’s advice is to contact the authorities if you come across exploitation at a workplace. If you come into direct contact with a vulnerable person, you can also contact Victim Support Finland (RIKU), who will advise what alternatives are available.
“We are increasingly being contacted by employees who are not prepared to go to the police but who want to ask what they can do and what the consequences are. Legal assistance is usually required at a fairly early stage as well as help from an interpreter in hearings to make sure that questions are being put properly. If you just investigate labour discrimination, other elements like human trafficking may not come to light”, says Marttila.
Antalet exploateringsfall i arbetslivet som uppdagas har ökat.
”Att siffrorna går upp betyder inte det att fallen ökar utan att myndigheterna blivit bättre på att upptäcka exploateringar i arbetslivet. Ifall att våra klienter märker att systemet fungerar motiveras fler att söka hjälp. Berättelser sprids inom olika samfund och därför är det viktigt att se till att klienternas rättigheter garanteras till maximum”.
There has been an increase in the number of cases of exploitation in working life coming to light.
“The fact that the numbers are going up doesn’t mean that there are more cases. It means the authorities have got better at uncovering exploitation in working life. If our clients notice that the system works, more people are motivated to seek help. Reports spread in various communities and that’s why it’s important to make sure that clients’ rights are guaranteed to the maximum”.
There are more asylum seekers in Victim Support Finland’s statistics than before.
“The cleaning sector has been attractive especially for asylum seekers and employers have used residence permits as a route to exploitation”, Marttila adds.
The fact is that the more vulnerable people there are, the bigger the risk is that they will be exploited. Marttila adds that the number of Finnish companies that don’t respect collective agreements has increased.
“In some companies there’s an attitude that foreign employees don’t need to be paid as much as Finns”, she says.
Pia Marttila wants to see an integrated approach being taken to Finland’s immigration policy. The latest changes to the Aliens Act gave rise to new ways of exploiting foreign labour.
”The stricter immigration policy becomes, with no regard for the right of vulnerable individuals to seek help, the harder their situation becomes"
"One example is the income limits that were brought in for family reunifications and which had a negative impact on exploited employees. As a result of the change in the law employees became even more dependent on their employers. This also led to a new business model where employers charge so that on paper it appears that the employee is earning enough”.
Marttila har irriterat sig över den stereotypiska bild av utnyttjade som ibland målats upp i den allmänna debatten där man talar om dem som välfärdsturister.
Marttila is frustrated at the stereotype image of exploited people sometimes painted in the general debate, where there is talk of welfare tourists.
“It’s funny that they are portrayed as people who want to take advantage of our welfare system, whereas on the contrary all the people I have talked to even have been working round the clock and their biggest fear is of losing their job”, she says.
Labour exploitation checklist
- The term comprises different types of exploitation of employees. This ranges from wages that are not in line with the collective agreement to work-related human trafficking, i.e. forced labour.
- Exploited employees are not a heterogeneous group and there is no specific type of victim. They are all individuals who are exploited by their employers in different ways. Labour exploitation is a phenomenon that often affects people with an immigrant background because for a variety of reasons they are in a weaker position in the labour market. Factors that make an employee more exposed to exploitation include their lack of knowledge of the Finnish labour market, their lack of language skills and for example incomplete permit granting processes.
- Exploitation can create a dependency relationship, and as a result employees don’t dare to report anything. Family ties with the employer or blackmail can also be factors contributing to an employee not daring to take action. If you come into direct contact with an exploited person, tell Victim Support Finland, who can the person what options are available.
- The number of Finnish companies not respecting collective agreements has increased. Labour exploitation also occurs at organised workplaces. That’s why it’s important that the shop steward provides information to all employees at the workplace (if necessary with the help of an interpreter) on what employees’ rights are, what the collective agreement says and offers membership of PAM.
- If there is no shop steward at the workplace other employees are in a key position when it comes to identifying situations where exploitation occurs and informing the union of this. It pays to ask the employee concerned if they have an employment contract and if the wages they get are the same as the amount in the contract. You can also ask the employee if they know how their pay is made up, if their pay is paid into their account, and what their working hours are.
- PAM is campaigning for criminalisation of underpay, i.e. fining employers who pay excessively low wages.
- If a foreign employee is unsure whether their pay or working conditions are correct, contact SAK’s toll-free telephone service for foreign employees where employees can get information on things like their right to work in the country and minimum employment conditions.
- If you happen to see something indicating human trafficking, take it seriously and contact the authorities – the Regional State Administrative Agency or the police. It is possible to give tip-offs anonymously!