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Lawyer Francisco Merida came to Finland for love. Unable to find work in his own profession, the determined man made his way up the restaurant industry to become a manager.

Mexican lawyer Francisco enjoys working in a burger restaurant – we met foreigners who want to work in Finland

Maarit Rasi, Kaisa Viljanen
Aleksi Poutanen
Julkaistu: 7.5.2024
Muokattu: 7.5.2024
To keep services running, Finland needs 40,000 immigrant workers every year. The new workers are happy as long as the job meets their expectations and induction is done properly.

Why on earth do you want to work at Hesburger?"

From time to time, Francisco Merida, 41, answers this question that seems to puzzle many.

A lawyer by training, he works as a restaurant manager at Hesburger in Helsinki. Some people find it difficult to understand why a highly qualified professional would do a job that does not match his training.

Questions end when Merida says that he is now completely happy. Working at Hesburger Asema-aukio, operated by HOK-Elanto, is a pleasure.

"This has been entirely my own decision. When you make a decision of your own free will, you don't regret the change you make in your life. I was also happy in Mexico, but in Finland I’ve found peace."

Ten years ago, Merida was still working in Mexico. First he worked for the federal parliament, then in the congress of the state of Chiapas in the south of the country.

Being a lawyer had its advantages: colleagues were respected professionals, the work challenging and the benefits were considerable by local standards. Travel, fancy dinners and entertaining were all part of the job.

"Among other things, I had free use of the in-house chauffeur. I also had a secretary. I'm an achiever by nature, but the work culture in Mexico was relaxed. People always had time to talk to each other," Merida recalls.

The work was enjoyable and rewarding, but it also took a lot out of you. Merida worked more than 48 hours a week, six days a week. Leisure time was limited.

"I practically slept with my mobile phone in my hand. I had to be available all the time."

Merida still remembers with emotion a weekend when he went on a long-awaited road trip with his then-spouse. Everything was going great, but then there was a call from work. The trip had to be cut short and Merida had to go back to work. Both Merida and his spouse were disappointed.

When his partner later suggested moving back to her native Finland, he didn't hesitate.

"I was ready to change my life."

There is a severe shortage of workers

Merida is one of more than a thousand S Group employees with foreign background. His colleagues at the burger restaurant come from all over the world, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Morocco and Sri Lanka. The working language is English, but the work itself is not affected by the employees’ backgrounds.

In total, S Group employs people of more than 80 nationalities. The highest numbers are from Estonia, Russia and the Philippines.

The need for foreign workers is growing, as by 2030 there will be 130,000 fewer people of working age in Finland than today, due to low birth rates and retirements.

"The demographic trend means that we won’t have enough people in Finland to care for our elderly or sick. The availability of personnel will be a growing challenge both in the service sector and in professional work," says Hanne Lehtovuori, S Group’s HR Director.

S Group companies currently have plenty of job seekers, but more professionals are needed especially for roles with responsibility, restaurants and hotels and, depending on the region and season, also in supermarkets. In some cases, the opening hours of the ABC service stations have even had to be reduced due to a lack of employees. Especially in small towns, foreign workers are indispensable.

According to Lehtovuori, workers from other countries are also happy in Finland, as long as they have a realistic idea of the work they are coming here to do.

"In our working culture, we have a flat hierarchy and diverse job descriptions. For example, chefs have expressed their appreciation for this."

People should be hired more boldly even if they don't speak perfect Finnish.

We need a huge deal of labour migration to Finland, says Markku Sippola, senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Helsinki. He says Finland simply cannot cope without immigration.

"In countries with growing populations, the economy grows. Immigration is an essential factor for Finland's competitiveness," he says.

Maintaining the economic dependency ratio is important, because it is the taxes paid by working people that finance the services provided by society. ETLA Economic Research estimates that Finland will need around 44,000 immigrants every year to maintain the current economic dependency ratio, i.e. the ratio of the unemployed and people outside the workforce.

"This means that, similarly to many other European countries, immigrants would account for more than 15% of the population," Sippola adds.

The challenge is that Finland is competing for the same workers with other, perhaps more attractive, European countries. The best workers are now pouring into Germany, which is welcoming immigrants with open arms," Sippola says.

He warns of a situation where immigration dries up. An example can be found in Japan. The population of Japan forms a similar age pyramid as Finland - and economic growth is non-existent.

"I’d like to see rational arguments in the public debate about immigration, because the facts speak for themselves. Labour migration and the successful integration of immigrants could speed up Finland’s slow economic growth.”

Learning the language helped me to fit in

The debate on immigration is heated in Finland, and the government is currently considering tightening the conditions for immigration by setting an income threshold of €1,600 for a work-related residence permit.

Sippola challenges claims about immigrants seeking to take advantage of social benefits, although as an expert he also recognises the side-effects of immigration and failed integration.

"Immigrants usually want to live, work and pay taxes in Finland, and that’s what they do."

Francisco Merida has always felt welcome in Finland. After arriving in Helsinki in spring 2015, he immediately started to study Finnish at a summer university.

His desire to learn this new language was so strong that he declined all contact with other Mexicans living in Helsinki. When acquaintances tried to get him to come to popular Latino parties, Merida said no.

"It was a tough decision, but it helped me adjust."

Although he was motivated, learning the language was not easy. Merida still wonders why the classes were spent learning the written language. The language studied on the course was hardly the same language that Finnish people speak in everyday life.

Finland would need around 44,000 immigrants every year.

When Merida finally managed to get through his visit at an R-kioski in Finnish, he felt like a winner.

"I felt like I was settling in Finland. When I speak the language, I can be part of society."

Merida has also wanted to learn Finnish because of his daughter. His child's mother was the reason for him moving to Finland in the first place. The couple continues to co-parent their daughter, even though their marriage has ended.

"I feel safe"

Foreign workers are also needed for jobs in various parts of Finland outside the Helsinki region. People passing through the shopping centre and restaurants in Mikkeli may have come across Lucie Uwamungu.

Uwamungu's job is to make sure that customer premises are tidy. Not many people notice her work, but if it does not get done, she will be immediately missed.

"Many people say that cleaning is hard, but by God, I enjoy it! I clean from my heart."

Initially, Uwamungu worked as a cleaner for various employers. She found her way to Suur-Savo Cooperative Society’s employ through a lady who attended the same church and worked for S Group.

For Uwamungu, 35, the job has given independence. She has used her wages to buy a car and save for a house with her Rwandan spouse, who is studying to become a doctor. A large family needs space. Uwamungu has five children. The youngest is just a toddler, the eldest has already moved away from home and works in a sports shop. Neighbours help with childcare.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uwamungu grew up in a refugee camp in Rwanda. She has experienced trauma and great losses in her life that are still difficult to talk about.

In 2011, Uwamungu was admitted to Finland as a quota refugee. She was a 22-year-old mother of two. She had to learn everything about everyday life in Finland, starting with how to use an oven. In Rwanda, Uwamungu had not been able to go to school. It took time to adjust.

Now Uwamungu has a stable, work-filled life. The role of work and the support of her supervisors and other Finns has been invaluable. Uwamungu is very grateful to her supervisors and her employer.

"Pirjo, Timo... my bosses are always willing to listen and help. They support me like they would their own children, they appreciate and defend me. My life changed when I came to work here. Now I feel safe."

Uwamungu is studying for a vocational qualification in cleaning through an apprenticeship. Later, she wants to complete comprehensive school so that she will be able to send messages other than just voice messages in her mother tongue to her siblings in the US.

More than a hundred job applications

Not all foreigners find the jobs they want and integrate into Finnish society as smoothly as Merida and Uwamungu. According to Markku Sippola, foreigners' employment is made more difficult particularly by high Finnish language requirements and a lack of contacts. If an immigrant has a degree from another country, they have not had time to create networks in Finland that would facilitate employment.

"We have a lot of people who are underemployed compared to their level of education. In the cleaning industry, there are a lot of dark-skinned men with law or business degrees. There are hierarchies in place and they need to be shaken up," says Sippola.

Francisco Merida also initially tried to apply for assistant jobs in law firms, but gave up after sending more than 100 job applications. Employers did not respond to any of them.

"I was told to call after applying, but my language skills were poor at the time," he recalls.

The debate about language requirements is also familiar to S Group, Finland's largest private employer. That is why the retail group has been highlighting examples of how everyday life at the workplace goes just fine, even if people speak different languages.

In March, HR Director Hanne Lehtovuori took part in a discussion on equality and non-discrimination in working life chaired by Prime Minister Petteri Orpo (Coalition Party). The debate was supported by Miriam Attias, who founded the think-tank MAP Finland with her colleagues to focus on the development of interaction and well-being at work in diverse communities.

According to Attias, the diversity of employees means that there are fewer shared self-evident truths in the workplace. That is why more discussion is needed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as more perspectives mean more creativity – as long as good working atmosphere and interaction are maintained.

The round table also highlighted that employers need more encouraging examples of hiring people from different backgrounds, as well as incentives for recruitment and support for career paths. People with different skills need hope that they too can get an opportunity to fulfil their potential and use their skills," says Hanne Lehtovuori. It is also in the company's interest.

"My bosses are always willing to listen and help. They support me like they would their own children."

She says people should be hired more boldly even without perfect Finnish language skills.

"It would help the employment of foreigners if they could learn Finnish while working," he says.

When you get to use the language in real situations, and not just in language courses, your language skills can develop. Lehtovuori stresses that language skills should not be seen as a permanent feature in a person, but as a professional skill whose development can be supported.

More time for the family

For Merida, ending up in the restaurant industry has not been a disappointment. He points out that a Mexican law degree is not valid in Finland. He is not familiar with Finnish law. Even if you are well-educated, the education does not always meet Finnish requirements.

"Besides, I’m an adaptable person. Whenever I can, I focus on the positive."

Merida's first job in Finland was at Fafa's, an S Group restaurant in Vantaa. He was promoted to shift manager in a month. After a couple of months, he attended a supervisor training course and was promoted to business idea manager.

He has been restaurant manager since 2021, and his ambitions for the future are even higher.

Everyday life in Finland has its advantages. The commute is short, children can move around independently and there is more time for family.

"Helsinki is like a small town compared to Mexican cities, but I like it. I like that it's peaceful. I don't need big apartment blocks and traffic to be happy."

After nine years in Finland, Merida is happy to be able to do his own thing without the community demanding that he behave in a certain way. Of course, he still misses Mexico. Family, friends and local food are on his mind from time to time. As years go by, the less pressing the feeling of missing home gets. Merida’s life is here now.

Going forward, Merida will have even more reason to integrate in Finland. His new partner and Merida are looking forward to a new addition to the family. Their baby is due in early June.

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