Stuck in Finland due to the coronavirus, the Estonian workers can (finally) return to the country

Bloqués en Finlande à cause du coronavirus, les travailleurs estoniens peuvent (enfin) rentrer au pays

Helsinki | Helsinki, in the morning of may, the port is gradually returning to its allure cruise, the rhythm of the long lines of vehicles ready to embark on the Tallink Megastar, in the direction of Estonia.

Two months after the introduction of a semi-confinement in the fight against the new coronavirus, Finland relaxes gradually to its measures, for today thousands of workers cross-border blocked in the nordic country to return home.

Before the health crisis, the authorities estimated that 50 000 the number of Estonian workers regularly commute between the baltic states and Finland, where salaries are higher.

Many of them are working in the health, logistics or construction, a sector where the Estonian workforce represents almost a quarter of the jobs in the country.

But in mid-march, when the Finnish government took its first measures of restriction to contain the epidemic of Covid-19 – including the closure of its borders -, the Estonian workers had no choice but to make a decision: to stay or to leave.

“All those that I know have made the same choice, to stay here,” says the AFP Rain Anni, head of construction site in Helsinki.

This father of a family, who had the habit of finding all the weeks in Estonia and his wife and two teenage children, had not seen them for two months, until the recent reopening of the borders for the workers of the Schengen area – 14 may – with a guarantee of being able to return to work on the soil of Finland.

Shortage of workers

In Finland, the construction sector is one of the main economic engines of the country, which quickly prompted fears of the see paralyzed. Fears deemed so far to be unfounded, according to trade union organisations.

Matti Harjuniemi, head of the main trade union in finland, the construction industry, estimated that only 15% of the 20 000 Estonian workers employed in the building in Finland returned to their home countries after the introduction of restrictions.

“The sector has not been so severely affected as this, and the situation has improved since the reopening of the border,” he said to the AFP.

He warns, however, that the sector could be facing a downturn this fall, due to a decrease in demand.

The border closure has, however, led to a shortage of labor for some companies, leading them to interrupt projects.

“New shipyards were opened during the confinement, and they needed new workers, but have not been able to have,” said Timo Ahola, head of construction department in a recruitment agency.

Marek Resev is Estonian. Put the part-time unemployment in march after the closure of the site on which he was working, he went home to Jarva-Jaani, in the centre of Estonia.

“I’ve done a lot of things in me (…) I spent time with my girlfriend”, he said to the AFP. “The question of money, however, has always been present,” he continued.

Marek has resumed his work in Finland on the 18th of may, but in an uncertain economic environment, combined with a possible return to the containment, the man said that he was concerned.

Systematic controls

Since the loosening of restrictions, the traffic of the ferries has resumed after two months to be “very difficult” for companies.

“These past few weeks, we just had trucks on board”, explains to the AFP Marika Nojd, Tallink Silja, one of the largest ferry companies in the Baltic sea.

Since mid-may, the number of passengers has been increased, but only 10% of normal volume. “It is little, but it is already that”, says Ms. Nojd.

The Finnish border is still closed for vacation travel.

Some 6 400 daily passengers sailing between Helsinki and Tallinn since the 14th of may, details the commander Mikko Simola, the coast guard, a number significantly lower than the 32,000 daily passengers recorded in 2019, at the same time.

Upon arrival in Helsinki, each vehicle is now systematically controlled.

Usually, these controls are only necessary for passengers arriving on a cruise ship from a country outside the european Union.

“It is important to remember that all of this is done to ensure that the Covid-19 does not spill more”, says lieutenant Jim Kuusimaki, one of the responsible for the border post.

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