During the emergency situation, there have been many discussions on foreign labour – who, for how long and when can work in Estonia at the moment. The cluster law initiated with the COVID-19 draft set entered into force today thus changing the conditions for foreign workers staying in Estonia with a short-term work permit. The main aim of the amendments to the Aliens Act is to protect Estonian residents in the labour market.
The Aliens Act regulates the terms for third country nationals regarding their temporary stay, work and residence conditions in Estonia. Thus, the given changes will affect only foreign labour, that is, those foreigners who are third country nationals, they are not permanent residents of Estonia and they work here on short-term basis. The working regulations applying to the citizens of the European Union, European Economic Area and the Swiss Confederation have not changed.
Exceptions in the agricultural sector
The aim of rules for foreign labour in Estonia is to protect the Estonian labour market. For the given reason, the act allows third country nationals to work here up to 12 months within a period of 15 months under general conditions or for up to 9 months within a period of 12 months as a seasonal worker. The employer must register the short-term employment of a foreign worker at the Police and Border Guard Board (PBGB). Due to the restrictions on cross-border mobility imposed to prevent the spread of the corona virus, many employers could not receive the additional workforce needed and therefore an amendment to the law was introduced to make a beneficial exception for the agricultural sector. Employers operating in the agricultural sector are allowed to employ until 31 July those third country nationals who were staying in Estonia as of 17 March when the cross-border mobility restrictions were established. The given foreign workers may be hired in the agricultural sector also in case their maximum allowed working period in Estonia has expired or is about to expire. Agriculture often makes use of seasonal labour with no requirement to pay at least the average Estonian salary of the previous year. The same conditions also apply to the employment of foreign labour in the agricultural sector until 31 July. As usual, the employer must register the short-term employment of a foreign worker at PBGB. After July, the foreign workers have until 31 August to arrange their outbound travel from Estonia.
Those foreign workers whose work permit has expired and who will not continue working in the agricultural sector must leave Estonia at the earliest possibility. In case it is not currently enabled by the border crossing regulations, they will have the right to stay in Estonia and leave within 10 days after the end of the emergency situation. We advise people to contact their embassy to learn about possibilities to leave Estonia and return to their home country. Also, the employers can help their foreign employees to return to their home country after the end of the employment relationship.
Adaptation is underway
The exception to the agricultural sector marks a transitional period allowing the employers to adapt to the new situation and find suitable workers among Estonian residents. During the emergency situation, the number of unemployed Estonian residents has increased by about 14,000 with the total number of unemployed Estonian residents now amounting to 50,000. At a time when our own people are increasingly losing their jobs, it is the state’s responsibility to support Estonian residents and provide them with the possibilities to take the vacant jobs.
Many agricultural companies have said in the media that for the first time in years they now have numerous applicants for the vacancies. By now, many people have probably heard about the beautician whose long-term wish to try her hand as a milker came true when she began working in a farm quite at the beginning of the emergency situation. Similarly, two music students who came back to Estonia for the pandemic applied for temporary jobs at a local farm to offer their assistance.
These are by no means the only examples. Estonians are smart clever and adaptable – I’m sure that in the current situation, employers and jobseekers will find each other and Estonian people will come to appreciate agricultural work as a good opportunity more.
Staying in Estonia for work requires working
The amendment to the Aliens Act also stipulates that in case third country nationals staying in Estonia with a long-term visa or visa-free for the purpose of working lose their job, they need to either find a new job within a reasonable period of time or leave Estonia. The given amendment is introduced permanently and does not pertain to the end of the emergency situation. The aim of the amendment is to ensure that unemployed foreigners staying in Estonia would return to their home country and not remain in the Schengen area. Without their legal income, there is a risk that the foreigners will remain illegally in Estonia, go to other EU countries or commit other offences. Thus, the most reasonable thing for an unemployed foreigner is to return to his or her home country.
The foreign worker’s visa will not become invalid overnight, the person is provided a reasonable period of time to find a new employer or arrange his or her departure from Estonia. The estimated reasonable transitional period could be one month, however, the Police and Border Guard Board will consider each individual case separately
The aim of the amendments to the Aliens Act is to encourage employers to prefer Estonian residents in the labour market and ensure that foreign employees left without a job will return to their home country.
Author of this article: Ruth Annus, Head of the Citizenship and Migration Policy Department