Illustration: Ragni Svensson

Conference reports Labor migration in the Baltic Sea Countries. “We need workers and they need work”

The expert seminar "Labor migration in the Baltic Sea Countries: Trends and prospects" April 25, took a closer look at migration-related challenges. Export of labor and lose of younger people are worrying problems for the Baltic States, noted key-note speaker professor Charles Woolfson. Other problems mentioned on the seminar were the labor migrants’ vulnerable situation, and the growing amount of abandoned children.

Published on on May 2, 2013

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The increasing migration flows in the Baltic region create great challenges, not the least for the countries that are losing an increasing number of their inhabitants. Some of these challenges were in focus for the expert seminar ”Labor migration in the Baltic Sea Countries: Trends and prospects” that was organized in Vilnius April 25, by – among others – The Nordic Council of Ministers and the Swedish NGO Global Challenge.

Charles Woolfson, professor of sociology at Linkoping University and one of the Keynote speakers, sees the big number of people leaving Lithuania as problematic. He has lived in Lithuania during the last decade and has specialized in the social developments of the country. He told that in 2010 and 2011, around 140 000 declared their emigration from the country.

“Lithuania is exporting its people and importing EU funds. The dependence on EU money is massive, but unfortunately the money is not used in the best possible way.”

A lot of the funded means is lost to corruption, he says in an interview afterwards, and further notes that very little is used to reducing the gaps between rich and poor. He is very critical of the developments within the private sector of the economy.

“The private sector is deteriorating, he told the audience.

The conditions are worse than in the public sector in several ways: lower wages, increased number of temporary contracts, more dismissals, longer hours and reduced labor rights.”

Since the third quarter of 2011 real wages have started to grow in Estonia and Latvia – but this is not the case in Lithuania. 20 percent of Lithuanians live on 240 Euros or less per month, according to Woolfson. Life expectancy for men at birth is the lowest in Lithuania among all EU countries.  It has indeed recovered since 2002, but less so than in other poor countries of the EU. When it comes to life expectancy for women, only four other EU-countries score worse than Lithuania (Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania).

“And the shadow economy in Lithuania which grew during the economic crisis is still much larger than before the crisis, 27 percent of GDP in 2012 as opposed to 18 percent in 2008. This is very problematic, a lot of tax money that the state needs is not being collected.”

Many European countries are facing a problematic demographic development with aging populations as a consequence of the low birth rates. But nowhere is the problem as acute as in Lithuania since the country also faces this big exodus of young people, argues professor Woolfson. The new troubling trend is that whole families with young children leave.

“But it is wrong only to talk about migration as the reason for all the problems. There are also other reasons for the unfavorable demographic situation, it is about social injustice in Lithuania, poor working conditions and the way you treat the weakest in society.”

People in the Baltic countries have very different perceptions of where their own societies are heading, which has been documented in the Estonian Human Development Report from 2011. Professor Woolfson quoted the report: a couple of years ago as many as 42 percent of the Estonians thought that things in their country are going in the right direction, as opposed to 10 and 7 percent respectively in Lithuania and Latvia.

Charles Woolfson also showed the dramatic increase in the number of people moving from the Baltic countries and Poland to Norway: from a little more than 1 000 in 2003 to over 23 000 in 2011, an increase that has been rather steady over the years (with a little dip in 2009). Less than half of that number came to Sweden and Denmark in 2011, due to the greater demand for labor in Norway (and the higher wages there!).

Johanna Roto from Nordregio touched upon this topic in her presentation on the seminar, where she outlined the three main reasons behind the choice of country to move to. People of course move to where it is easy to find work. But emigrants also prefer countries nearby and countries where you know the language.

“But one has to emphasize that the biggest migration of all is from rural to urban areas, often within one country”, said Johanna Roto.

She showed illustrative statistics of the Nordic countries from 2011 when 284 000 people moved to – or within – the region. Yes, immigrants from the Baltic States and Poland constitute a rather big group, around 15 percent. But the number of people moving from one Nordic country to another is larger – 20 percent.

Kjell Skjaervo, from the Norwegian United Federation of Trade Unions, gave a fascinating insight into the new face of the labour market in Norway:

“40 percent of the active members in my union for construction workers in Oslo are EU nationals. Most are Polish but there are also many Latvian and Lithuanian workers. Over the years I have talked to hundreds of them but only once have I met someone who had been a member of a trade union. And that was a Polish woman who had moved from Sweden to Norway!”

He described how vulnerable these workers are; since they are so little aware of the rights they are entitled to.

“Many employers think that they can treat them however they like. And we trade unions in the host country are not doing enough to support them.”

Another group of individuals that has been affected negatively as a result of migration are the children left back home, when both parents work in another country. In Lithuania experts believe that over 2 000 such children are left behind, living with relatives or friends or just being alone. A professor of sociology at Vilnius University, Irena Juozeliūnienė, has done research on these children.

“Many of them are not doing well, even though their parents don´t want to admit it. These kids drop out of school more often than other kids and they commit more crimes. And sadly to say, the children left behind when parents leave to work abroad are growing in numbers every year.”

Another effect of the growing number of Polish and Baltic emigrants to the Nordic countries is also a growing number of people from these countries in Nordic prisons. Journalist and lecturer Juuli Stewart has inteviewed many of these prisoners and made some interesting remarks at the conference:

“These prisoners are often younger and better educated than their fellow prisoners in their home countries. They are more seldom addicted to alcohol or drugs, even though many of them have been convicted of drug related crimes. But they distribute the drugs, and less often use them. This is a big difference from for example Norway´s own drug criminals who often also are drug addicts.

She claims that the destination countries could do more to understand these prisoners background, and should adjust the measures given to them in prison to make it easier for them to, once released and sent home, function in everyday life. Lately a growing number of these citizens have been sent back to their home countries to serve their sentences there. Most experts in the field believe that such a procedure is positive since it is easier to integrate in society again if you are close to family and friends.

Anna Platonova, from the International Organization for Migration, focused in her Keynote speech on the difficulties of using immigration as a response to perceived labor shortages in specific occupations.

“The need for certain type of workers occurs now, not in two years from now. Once the workers start coming in large numbers they continue to do so, although the needs might have changed. When the immigrants arrive to work, they might find that  the companies now are looking for other specialists!”

She claimed, however, that it is not impossible to calculate what kind of immigrants that is needed to fill the exact right holes in the labor market. But, she underlined, it is a difficult calculation. It requires detailed planning and accurately predicting business cycle effects.

Many of the speakers underlined the positive effects of migration, even for those countries that have lost large numbers of their citizens. András Kováts, director of the Hungarian Association for Migrants and one of the moderators of the conference, took the situation in Lithuania as an example of the benefits gained:

“What would have happened if the 17 percent of the population which has left the country had stayed instead? Higher unemployment. And no remittances being sent back to Lithuania.”

The worrying trend nowadays, however, is that entire families tend to a greater extent leave the Baltic states, a fact that also Charles Woolfson pointed out. That means both less remittances and a loss of valuable young people who will probably never move back. Efforts have been made to make people return, but with rather weak results.

Dace Akule from the Latvian Centre for Public Policy referred to a survey saying that 65 percent of Latvians who have emigrated “don´t plan to return in the near future (5 years)”.

The other major solution for countries losing many of their citizens is to attract citizens from other countries. Also in this area, not much is changing. One reason is the attitude towards immigrants. In a survey, presented by Dace Akule, only 7 percent of the Latvians believe that immigration could solve the problems caused my emigration – whereas 38 percent believe that immigrants will “create problems by taking over jobs from the locals”.

The survey also shows a clear difference between the views of ethnic Latvians and those of ethnic Russians, the latter group comprising about a third of the population. 33 percent of the Latvians believe that migrants “make Latvia more open to new ideas and cultures” while 49 percent of the Russians say the same thing. And only 21 percent of the Latvians believe that “migration gives benefits to the economy” whereas 40 percent of the Russians agree with such a statement. The small number of immigrants to the Baltic States from non-EU countries are to a great extent Russian, which might contribute to this more positive attitude among Russians.

Also in Lithuania there are widespread negative opinions about immigrants. The researcher Vija Platačiūtė from Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas referred to a survey showing that 85 percent of Lithuanians have negative views of labor immigrants because of “competion and of deteriorating working conditions”. Half of them answer that they do not want to work with immigrants.

A huge challenge for the Baltic countries is to try to change this negative attitude, argued several of the participants.

„The immigrants are still so few that people have not seen the contributions that they can make to the economy, said Dace Akule.

We also have problems with employers not respecting immigrant workers, which hardly makes it easier for ordinary people to respect the immigrants.“

Her research colleague from The Institute of Baltic Studies in Tartu, Kristina Kallas, made the point that both Latvia and Estonia should do more to integrate the large minorities of Russians instead of focusing on attracting new immigrants. (Lithuania has a much smaller Russian minority).

“The Russian speakers are almost a third of the population. 16 percent of them are unemployed, compared to 8 percent of the Estonian speakers. This is a huge problem that we need to address. In Estonia we don´t have labor shortages, we have skills shortages. 35 percent of the Russians don´t neither speak nor understand Estonian!”

The participant from Poland – Maciej Duszczyk of the Centre of Migration Research in Warsaw – described his country as being in the process of transforming itself from a typical emigration-country into an emigration-immigration one. The number of immigrants in Poland is growing in a steady pace. Poland issued 40 000 working permits for non-EU citizens in 2011, an increase from 10 000 since 2006. Half of them were issued for Ukrainians, who mainly work in agriculture and construction.

“It is difficult to predict future shortages in the labor market, to predict what professions we will be in need of. But in any case we want to make it easier for people to move to Poland from countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova and Georgia.”

He comes to the conclusion that we need workers, and they need work.

  • Ole Andreassen

    A good piece on a very important issue.

  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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