Welcome to Finland—but your work permit might take some time

Finland’s government set itself a target of making the work permit process quick and painless—but applicants still face long delays.

Getting a work permit in Finland should be a smooth process, according to targets set in the government’s programme, but reality often doesn’t match up to the ideal.

At the moment the process can take as long as a year, much more than the four-month limit laid down in the Aliens’ Act. Manzurul Haque is one applicant currently playing a waiting game, and he’s on the verge of giving up on Finland.

Haque originally came to Finland to study, but he now works for a company in the software industry in Helsinki. He applied for a work permit last July, but still doesn’t have a decision.

“The situation has got me down. I think about the work permit all the time and it’s already affecting my day-to-day work.”

Haque is permitted to work while his application is being processed, but if he leaves the country he won’t be allowed back because he has no valid residence permit.

That’s depressing enough for Haque, but the situation worsened significantly for him recently when his mother became seriously ill in Bangladesh. Haque cannot visit her without risking his job and ability to work in Finland until he gets his work permit.

“I’ve decided to wait until the end of July, If I don’t have a work permit by then, I’ll move to some other country. I’ve received job offers elsewhere.”

Backlogs at local employment offices

The number of work-based residence permits granted in Finland has grown. Last year 6,751 were issued, around a thousand more than the year before. This year the highest numbers of permits have been handed out to Ukrainians, Indians and Russians.

EU citizens have a relatively simple route to come to Finland and work as they don’t need a work permit.

Arrivals from outside the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) face a longer, more complicated process for which they require a job offer or employment contract.

Applicants cannot come to Finland and look for work, rather they need to already have a job offer before seeking a work permit. The permit process involves two stages. First the local Employment Office checks to ensure the terms of work measure up to Finnish standards, before handing over the application to the Immigration Service to make the decision on the residence permit itself.

Story continues after photo.

Queues stretching past the front doors outside a migri office in March. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Employment offices aim to have their part of the process completed within two months of receiving the application, before handing it over to the Immigration Service (Migri) to make a final decision within another two months. Those targets are being missed.

Pirkanmaa Employment Office is currently handling applications submitted six months ago, while in Uusimaa the local office is processing applications made in November 2017. For many employees, these delays mean waiting eight months or more before the local employment service has even looked at their application.

Migri says that it takes an average of less than two months to process each application once it arrives, and at Yle’s request it estimated that on average applications exceed the maximum wait by around one month.

That average hides big imbalances—in North Ostrobothnia employment offices manage to process applications in two months, while in south-east Finland the wait is three months. Even so, Migri’s website still claims that work permits are processed in four months.

“Migri is aware of the problem, and the web pages are being updated,” said Marja Toivonen of Migri.

Staff shortages leave thousands in limbo

Some 3,000 applications were waiting to be processed in June. In Uusimaa alone the figure is 2,000. Many are waiting for extensions to existing permits or are from students in Finland hoping to start their careers here.

The first work permit is granted for a year at most, and applicants are allowed to continue working while their renewals are processed so long as they allowed four months for it to be processed before their original permit expired.

Uusimaa Employment Office says it’s suffering from a lack of manpower.

“The state’s current HR policies can’t react quickly to recruitment needs,” said Riku Hautamäki of the work permit service. “Lots of applications have arrived, but the number of people handling them has not risen at the same rate.”

In Uusimaa just 13 officers are tasked with reviewing a backlog of some 2,000 applications.

“That’s the main reason why waiting times have lengthened,” said Hautamäki.

Three reinforcements are soon to arrive in Uusimaa, which should help reduce the queue a little.

Finnish rules state that open positions should be filled wherever possible by EU or EEA citizens, and only if that isn’t possible can a work permit be granted for someone from outside those countries.

That consideration of need is performed by the authorities, but in practice if no suitable applicants are found after a period when the job was advertised, permits can be granted for citizens of third countries.

The consideration requirement has been rescinded for dozens of occupations in different parts of Finland because it’s acknowledged that there’s a labour shortage in those sectors. In the current government the Centre and National Coalition parties have been ready to remove the requirement entirely, but that idea has been blocked by the third government partner, Blue Reform.

More than a hundred MPs signed a proposal to abolish the requirement last year, but the proposal has not advanced in parliament.

Migri puts asylum seekers first

Migri’s current policy is to process applications from asylum seekers before others in the queue, lengthening delays for others. Migri says it wants to give a final decision for these people, who may have a history of years of applications.

Yle reported last year that it is very rare for asylum seekers to be allowed to stay in the country on the grounds of employment.

Delays in the work permit system are nothing new. Back in 2013 the Parliamentary Ombudsman asked the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Employment to ensure the process met the four-month deadline.

That arose from a complaint about the Pirkanmaa Employment Office, which at the time took nine months to process applications.

Later that year the Ministry said it had reduced the backlog at the office, but now the situation appears to be as bad as ever. When asked about the current backlog, a Ministry spokesperson said that they were considering ways to increase manpower at their employment offices.

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