Finland: Migrant experiences of the labour market

A recent survey from Finland finds that fluency in Finnish is crucial for the employment prospects of workers of migrant origin. It also finds that – while most migrants feel they are fairly treated at work – people of African and Middle-Eastern origin report the greatest difficulties. 

About the study

A study published in 2014 by Statistics Finland sheds light on various aspects of the working life and health of first- and second-generation migrants to the country (in Finnish). These aspects included some key aspects related to working life:

  • education;
  • language skills;
  • employment levels and patterns;
  • experience in the workplace;
  • capacity for work.

Quantitative in nature, the study examines correlations, rather than causality.

The research was a joint effort carried out between 2000 and 2014 by the national statistical authority Statistics Finland, the National Institute for Health and Welfare and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. Financing and supervision were also provided by the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy and the European Fund for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals.


The survey finds that the number of people of migrant background in Finland, while still lower than in many other countries, nearly tripled between 2000 and 2014 – from 113,000 to 323,000. More than half say they migrated for family reasons; one-fifth for work; 10% for study; 11% describe themselves as refugees; and 8% cite other reasons. And the number of foreign-born people is likely to grow quickly with the current refugee crisis. More recent national figures indicate that, in 2014, 3,700 asylum seekers arrived in Finland; that figure rose to 32,500 in 2015. The unprecedented number of asylum seekers in need of support will put additional pressure on the already heavily strained state budget (in Finnish), while job opportunities in the current economic situation are limited. However, Finland is also expected to need substantial immigration in the future due to its ageing population. Information about the migrant population is therefore essential for developing services and helping the new arrivals integrate.


Data were collected through interviews across Finland with 3,262 people of foreign origin. The criteria for inclusion was to have parents both of whom were born abroad; the group hence comprised respondents who were born abroad and respondents born in Finland. Interviews were conducted in 12 different languages and mainly in person, with respondents aged between 15 and 64 years. Given the time frame of the research, refugees who arrived in 2015 – in the most recent and highest profile wave of migration – were not included. The data were compared with data on the Finnish-born population collected through the Labour Force Survey (Statistics Finland) and the Health and Well-being for Residents Study (National Institute for Health and Welfare). 

Key findings

Factors in gaining employment 

The educational level, language skills and other professional abilities of migrants to Finland vary substantially; so too, therefore, does their participation in the labour market. In 2014, the employment rate (60%) of the respondents was ten percentage points below that of Finnish natives – 60% as against 70%. This is, above all, due to early motherhood being widespread among women of migrant origin, who consequently remain outside the labour market. The employment rate of men of migrant origin is only slightly lower than that of Finnish men, and compared with the employment rate of Finnish men with the same education levels, the employment rate of men of migrant origin is almost identical.

Having a refugee background, or being of Middle-Eastern or African origin correlates with the lowest employment rates; however, employment levels in these groups nevertheless increase markedly with time spent in Finland. When asked how they found their current jobs, interviewees cited social networks and job notices as the most important channels, while public employment services had been helpful in only 9% of cases.

Fluency in Finnish appears to be key to employment. The employment rate of people of migrant origin who are fluent in Finnish is equal to that of Finnish natives, but having elementary or mid-level language skills advances the employability only of those with a low level of education. Of foreign-born people who have relocated to Finland, 75% have mid-level or higher skills in Finnish. The weakest self-assessments of language skills were given by people from the following groups:

  • people of an Asian background;
  • those who had been in the country for less than five years;
  • those who had migrated for studies or work.

The authors of the study recommend implementing measures to customise language training for different education groups, and for stay-at-home mothers.

Employment patterns

People of migrant origin work largely in the same sectors as native Finns, but are less often engaged as specialists and more commonly found working in services and sales and as other blue-collar workers. Atypical employment (for instance, fixed-term contracts and part-time work) is more common in these sectors and occupations. Partly as a result of this, the employment contracts of workers of migrant background are more commonly fixed-term (22%, compared with 15% among native Finns) and part-time (18%, compared with 14%). The survey also finds that all workers with the lowest levels of education – both Finnish natives and people from a migrant background – have very similar employment patterns in these respects. However, highly educated migrant workers have more atypical employment patterns than their Finnish peers.

Entrepreneurship is roughly equally common among Finnish natives and migrants, but the sectors differ: Finnish natives more commonly work in agriculture and forestry (20% of all Finnish workers doing so, while workers from a migrant background are concentrated in the hotel, restaurant and catering sector (25% of them working in this sector). Migrant and Finnish employees work approximately equal working weeks, but migrant entrepreneurs work a longer week than their Finnish counterparts.

Experience in the workplace

Asking migrant workers about their experience of the workplace yielded a number of insights. 

  • Of the wage-earning interviewees, 22% reported they were the only people of migrant origin at their workplace. (Among Finnish employees, blue-collar workers are more likely to have migrant colleagues than are white-collar workers.)
  • Some 78% felt that they had received very fair or quite fair treatment at their workplace
  • Over 60% had received good support from colleagues and superiors.
  • A worrying proportion of workers of Middle-Eastern and African origin had experienced unequal treatment (22%) and weak support from their colleagues (21%) and superiors (17%).


People from a migrant background are, on average, much better educated than previous estimates suggested. Over 30% have received a third-level education, a proportion comparable to that of native Finns. However, 17% of those aged between 25 and 54 years have only a secondary level of education or less, making them less employable. This figures contrasts with 7% of native Finns in the same age group. When migrants complete second and third levels of education in Finland, these are most commonly within the fields of service industries and social and health care. The educational trajectories of migrants are less gender-segregated than those of native Finns.

Capacity for work

Migrants have, on average, no greater prevalence of physical disability that influences their working ability than native Finns; however, their perceived capacity for work is often less. Problems of limited capacity for work are particularly common among people of Middle-Eastern and African origin, of whom nearly 25% assessed their capacity for work as reduced. These results may be partly explained by traumatic experiences of being a refugee (which are common in this group) and by difficulties in securing employment, which influence how people view their own capacity.


A 2012 report by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy finds that discrimination based on ethnicity is a problem in the Finnish labour market. Earlier studies suggested, for instance, that employers set language requirements unreasonably high (in Finnish) in order to exclude employees with a foreign background. In September 2015, following racist incidents around the country, the peak-level social partners published a joint statement condemning racism and pointing out that Finland will increasingly need a foreign labour force. They also noted that all employees in the country have the same rights, responsibilities and obligations.

The refugee crisis has reanimated the discussion about migrant employment and integration, and a number of new immigration and integration policies have been discussed in recent months. In January 2015, Minister of the Interior Petteri Orpo (National Coalition Party) suggested that migrants with poor Finnish-language skills and limited work skills could be hired at lower salaries than those dictated by collective agreements. The proposal was rejected by peak-level trade unions and opposition parties (in Finnish) and the National Coalition Party's government partner, Finns Party (in Finnish).


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