Ukrainian farm workers and Finland’s regular army of labour

Daria Krivonos

Covid-19 pandemia and closing borders prompt questions about food production in Finland. As many countries in Europe have closed their borders, among the few international flights that continue to operate are charter flights with workers from Eastern Europe.

In the situation of emergency and closed borders, few exceptions have been made regarding essential travel. The European Commission issued the practical guidance that mobile workers within the EU, in particular, those in critical occupations such as health care and food sectors can reach their workplace.

In Finland, one of the few justified and essential reasons to travel for third country nationals has been defined as “work that is important for the functioning of society or security of supply, requires work tasks to be carried out by persons from another country, and cannot tolerate delay” (emphasis by the author).

Suddenly, words “borders” and “security” acquired a totally reverse meaning to the one we have got used to during the last years: the borders must be kept open exceptionally for persons from another country to make sure the national supply of food is secure. The persistent reliance on migrant labour is exposed more than ever. This is the moment when the value of migrant labour becomes so crucial that the borders are open only for critical workers.

Those who have been before referred to as “migrants” are suddenly called “critical workers”.

Clearly, this situation is nothing new as the role of migrant labour in the productive and reproductive economy has been discussed for long. It only became particularly visible now since many European countries have closed their borders and the reliance on foreign labour has become more difficult.

In her article on migrant care workers, Sara Farris (2015) argues that unlike the popular understanding of migrant labour as a reserve army of labour, migrant care workers should be regarded as Western European countries’ regular army of labour. The term “reserve army of labour” denotes surplus labouring population of the unemployed or underemployed people. These people are taken out of “reserve” during the times of need and high production, and laid off when there is no longer need in their labour. Migrant workers represent a high share of the reserve army of labour. In short, their position in the labour market can be summarized as “last hired, first fired”. Farris observed, however, that the global financial crisis notwithstanding, the sectors of care and health work, which are the highest employers of migrant women workers, have not been affected by the global economic crisis, and instead, have been even expanded.

Similarly, I suggest, that amid the current situation we also observe how migrant seasonal workers can be regarded as a regular army of labour, whose ”work is important for the functioning of society or security of supply” even in the emergency situation of closed borders.

Crucially, despite the economic downturns of this crisis and growing unemployment rates, there is continuous and urgent shortage of labour in the sectors that sustain our everyday lives such as, for instance, seasonal work in the farms that run exclusively on the labour of seasonal migrant workers. Also, as importantly noted by left-party politician Suldaan Said Ahmed, the higher rates of coronavirus infection among the non-white population in Finland should be interpreted as a class and labour issue since the labour of these people continues to sustain our day-to-day lives even during state emergencies through running the transportation system, health care and service sector.

Ukrainian seasonal workers in Finland

On Thursday April 23rd, the first charter flight with seasonal farm workers from Ukraine landed in Helsinki-Vantaa airport. While more charter flights from Ukraine were expected in April and May, the Ukrainian government banned the Ukrainian nationals from traveling abroad for seasonal work aiming to keep the workers in Ukraine and “inviting” them to develop the local economy. As a result of the travel ban, farmers in Finland are facing a major shortage of labour in harvesting crops.

Now the plan is to recruit inexperienced Finnish workers to harvest the crops. Before the travel ban, however, many commentators said that the hourly farm worker’s wage of 8,57 EUR is too low to make national workers labour in the fields. In addition, the farmers themselves noted that they need trained labour force since they cannot waste their time to educate the workers. As a sociologist-colleague Anastasia Diatlova commented, “so all this ”unskilled” work actually requires skills? The things you learn during a pandemic”.

 Working conditions

My post-doctoral research deals with Ukrainian labour migration. My fieldwork in Warsaw, Poland, where I was doing interviews with young Ukrainian migrants working in the service sector, was interrupted due the Covid-19 outbreak. Ukrainian workers are a desired supply of labour in many other European countries.

During the last few weeks, I contacted some people in Ukraine who had already come to work in the Finnish farms in the previous years or/and were planning to come to Finland to do seasonal work this summer. We discussed the terms of their employment and their pay as agricultural workers in Finland. While many public discussants in social media in Finland rightly consider 8,57 euros hourly wage a too low wage for heavy physical labour, in practice, many are paid between 5,57 and 6,50 euros per hour. On average, 1 000 euros is the salary that farm workers receive a month.

The people I talked to emphasized that their working conditions depend largely on the goodwill of the farmers that employ them – the situation which has been repeatedly discussed by migration researchers in relation to migrants’ dependency on employment contracts and visas (Könönen, 2012; Krivonos, 2015; Maury, 2017). When talking to me, some people were careful to critisise the violations of rights in Finland and the farmers they work for as they were afraid they might not be employed in the following years.

According to the people I interviewed, while the work contract says the worker should work 40 hours a week, in practice, the working hours are not regulated at all, as people work 10, 12 or 14 hours a day. And there is no extra payment for the over-time work.

One of the Ukrainian seasonal workers I contacted told me about the tricks used by the employers to make the workers labour longer hours while being paid less. He told me:

So, if I worked 200 hours for which I was paid 6 euros per hour, I earned 1 200 euros this month.  But then the farmer divides 1200 euros by the official hourly wage 8,57 EUR and voila, in the official papers, it turns out I worked only 140 hours! In papers it all looks clear and fine, and there is no way I can make a complaint.

The same person told me that weeks before mid-summer are particularly intense as people are forced to labour even longer hours to make sure the expected norm of harvest is met.

Another worker told me that together with other workers, he laboured 20 hours a day for two weeks before mid-summer to make sure the farmer can sell the most of the harvest.

According to the informants, some farmers even complain that the workers use the bathroom too often and therefore waste the time they are paid for. Indeed, “the worker here is nothing more than personified labour-time”, as Marx (1990, p. 352) put it.

The people who have been coming to Finland for seasonal work during the last 10 years told me that the wage has remained the same it was 10 years ago.

In addition to being paid little and working long hours, the workers cover their travel expenses to the farm from Ukraine on their own. The workers also pay for their accommodation by themselves while living in the farm. This year, the farmers have covered the 200 workers’ travel expenses as a matter of emergency but the people I talked to fear that the travel cost will be deducted from the workers’ wage at the end of the season.

The fact that the workers need to cover their travel expenses on their own forces people to take loans and acquire debt.

As sometimes people cannot contact their employers from Ukraine due to the lack of channels for direct communication between the employers and workers, there are many recruitment companies in Ukraine that work with Finnish farmers and sell vacancies to Ukrainian workers. The cost of one vacancy varies from 300 euros for a month of work in a farm to 1500 euros for three months of work. People take loans to be able to come to Finland and sell their labour power for 6 euros an hour.

When I asked the Ukrainian workers what they would like to change and improve in their work, they told me that they simply want the laws to be respected as they expected Finland to be: to be paid 8,57 euros per hour and be paid extra for over-time work, to have regular breaks from work (12 minutes every two hours), and have the channels to contact Finnish farmers directly.

As the packaging of the berries sold in the supermarkets all over Finland will soon proudly say “Made in Finland”, it is important to keep in mind that it is locally made in Finland by (mostly) Ukrainian workers, whose labour is heavily underpaid and not protected.

It was also important for the people I skyped with to emphasise that they are honest workers who are aware of their labour rights violations. It is the lack of channels through which they can protect their labour rights that they see as a big problem, as the farms are located in remote areas and it is difficult to prove the violations they face. Some also referred to other Ukrainian workers like them as “investors”. Indeed, remittances represent 11% of Ukraine’s GDP.

The coronavirus crisis has made even more visible the mechanisms of the productive and reproductive economy, when migrant labour became framed and addressed in terms of the “security” of the nation. This is a crucial political moment to publicly recognise the value of this labour by advancing and protecting their rights of these workers.

References

Farris, S. (2015) Migrants’ regular army of labour: gender dimensions of the impact of the global economic crisis on migrant labor in Western Europe. The Sociological Review: 63, 121-143

Krivonos, D. (2015) (Im)mobile lives: Young Russian women’s work and citizenship insecurities in Finland. Sosiologia, 52(4): 350-363.

Könönen, Jukka. 2012. “Prekaari työvoima ja uudet hierarkiat metropolissa. Ulkomaalaiset matalapalkkaisilla palvelualoilla.” Sosiologia 49:3, 190–205.

Marx, Karl, (1990 [1861]) Capital, Volume 1, London: Penguin Books

Maury O (2017) Student-migrant-workers: Temporal aspects of precarious work and life in Finland. Nordic Journal of Migration Research 7(4): 224–232.

 

Daria Krivonos is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives (EuroStorie), University of Helsinki. Her current research explores Ukrainian migrant labour in the Polish service economy.