How systemic racism and discrimination work in the Finnish workplace

by , under Enrique Tessieri

There are a number of studies that show that Finnish labor markets suffer from racialization and discriminate against migrant women. See box story with key figures on migrants in the Finnish labor market here

Migrant Tales spoke to three practical nurses that work for a large company in Helsinki.  The name of the company will not be published in order to not reveal the identity of the practical nurses, who are all of African origin and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

If a representative of the Finnish media would like to expand on this story, they can get in touch with us at [email protected]

There is overwhelming evidence through numerous studies, surveys even word of mouth that Finnish labor markets suffer from racialization and where especially migrant women face an uphill battle in finding work even if they have the same qualifications as their male counterparts.

The table above shows the educational background of 15-64-year-old migrants (ulkomaalaistaustainen) and Finns (suomalaistaustainen) who have completed tertiary education (korkea aste), upper secondary school (toinen aste) or comprehensive school (peruskoulu). Source: Survey on work and well-being among people of foreign origin.

One of the biggest challenges that visible migrants face in general, and women of African and Middle Eastern origin in particular, is whom to turn to if you are a victim of racism and discrimination at work. The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman doesn’t handle discrimination cases at work but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Finland (Työsuojelu)  and union do. Even so, it doesn’t guarantee anything because you are explaining your case to white people as one of the practical nurses, called Maryan, said.

Another factor that doesn’t encourage Finland to take a more effective approach in tackling discrimination at the workplace is the political climate against migrants and cultural diversity.

New Alternative* speaker of parliament, Maria Lohela, is one such example of how politicians, who should know better, fuel such a hostile environment against people like Maryan Last year she blamed migrants for high unemployment rates.

Despite the fact that Lohela made a political career with her Islamophobic rhetoric, her disingenuous claim about the causes of high migrant unemployment highlights how some politicians wash their hands of the problem: It’s all the migrants’ fault.

One of the findings of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR)  2012-2013 shadow report on discrimination in employment in Finland was startling:

Data on labor market discrimination in Finland is sketchy and difficult to obtain. Although it is known and has been discussed in public that employers from both the public and private sectors are reluctant to hire immigrants, solid evidence is difficult to obtain.


Read the full shadow report here.

If this is true four years later since ENAR’s shadow report was published, the question we should ask is why such information continues to be so sketchy and difficult to obtain? Why hasn’t the media written more stories on the topic?

According to the practical nurses,  migrants are a part of the problem as well since some are fearful of speaking out never mind know their rights. If the company treats its migrant and minority workers with contempt it will not encourage them to speak out and to learn what their rights are.

“That is why companies like ours hire them [migrants] because they are donkeys who don’t complain,” said one of the practical nurses.

Structural racism at the workplace

If there is discrimination in our society we will certainly find it in the workplace in the form of power and privilege; racism and discrimination are also played down and brushed under the rug at the workplace.

Maryan, who came to Finland when she was three years old from Somalia, has worked as a practical nurse for a large company in Helsinki that treats the disabled. The practical nurse knows a lot about the toxicity of racism and discrimination because she has seen and felt it since childhood.

“The 1990s weren’t as bad for us as today,” Maryan said. “Back then, Finns only looked at your skin color but today they also see you as a Muslim as well. It’s a double blow because you’re black and Muslim.”

Maryan said that when she was young she had a lot of hope that matters would change for the better. Today, her attitude has changed.

Migrant unemployment in Finland is about two times higher than the naional average.

“Hope keeps you going when you are young,” she continued. “As you get older, your hope turns to despair because you realize that nothing will change. And that’s why I am sort of paranoid today because of what happened to me at work with a white Finnish co-worker.”

Maryan said that at work there should be no room for racism because everyone must treat each other in a professional manner.

“We got into an argument over work and the co-worker started calling me names like f**k and the used the n-word three times,” she continued. “She still calls me names and I even complained to the regional manager who didn’t even see anything wrong with using the n-word. The regional manager said that the n-word isn’t a bad word because it was commonly used in the 1990s.”

Not finding any justice at work, Maryan went to file a complaint with the police for racist harassment and got in touch with Työsuojelu. She’s not too hopeful, however, that anything will happen.

When she went to the police to file a report against her co-worker for calling her the n-word, there was not even a drop of empathy shown by the police officer who registered her complaint.

“And this is the reason why I feel so paranoid these days,” she admitted. “I thought I had the same right to disagree with the co-worker when she called me the n-word a number of times. I definitely overestimated who I am in Finland and what my rights are.”

Working in such an environment where the management doesn’t consider the n-word offensive only exacerbates Maryan’s sense exclusion and her sense of powerlessness at work. As a black woman, she knows that her work has to be flawless because if she makes a mistake it will be a bigger thing than if a white Finn committed the same mistake.

Maryan often stays about 30 minutes after work without pay just to make sure that she’s done her job properly.

“There were two employees were I work,” she explained. “One of them was a white Finn who was always late and an Eritrean who came late to work as well. Guess who got scolded for being late. Right, it was the Eritrean. They never said anything when the white Finn came to work late.”

One of Maryan’s workmates confirmed the problems of unfair treatment that Maryan and other black practical nurses experience at her workplace.

“The salary of a practical nurse is pretty low so we make up for it by working weekend and night shifts,” said Maryan’s co-worker. “We usually don’t get such shifts because they go to white coworkers.”

A practical nurse called “Superwoman”

Contrary to Maryan and her co-worker, Superwoman has been a practical nurse the longest. During those years a lot of things have changed at her workplace as well as in Finland.

Having been one of the first black persons to be hired by the company, she said that problems like racism at the workplace are commonly brushed under the rug. Before becoming a practical nurse, Superwoman applied for a job at Clas Ohlson in the early 2000 and got turned down because of her skin color.

This study offers (in Finnish) a comprehensive view of Finland’s labor markets.

“They told me they could not hire me because the customers would get scared,” she said. “That’s why I studied to become a practical nurse.”

Superwoman said that she doesn’t see racism at her workplace because it happens so much.

“I don’t even notice it anymore even if it does happen,” she said. “It’s a normal thing. I know how to switch it [racism] off.”

Superwoman said it is “draining” to work at a place where everyone is constantly reminding you are not from Finland. She was a teenager when she moved to the country.

“I don’t, however, care what others think,” she continued. “I love my patients and work for them. Their content faces are enough payment for me.”

Superwoman, who is a single mother of two and who is studying to get a higher degree so she could become a manager one day, is grateful for her job and to Finland for offering her the opportunity to make something out of herself.

“Thanks to Finland I became an independent person,” she continued. “Racism is more than skin color and it happens because of ignorance.”

Microaggressions, which are everyday putdowns, insults that aim to undermine the dignity of visible minorities, women, and members of the LGBT community, are common at Superwoman’s workplace.

Once a white co-worker told her that she had never met a black person that works and doesn’t live off welfare.

“I didn’t know what to say and let it go because I guess she didn’t mean any harm [but it hurt what she said],” she said.

Reacting to what Maryan’s boss and the regional manager thought about one of the co-workers using the n-word against her, Superwoman said there’s a lot of covert and structural racism at work. “They don’t need to call you the n-word,” she said. “They can still be racist without ever using that word.”

If black employees are always under the scrutiny of the supervisor and co-workers, their voices aren’t heard at meetings never mind taken seriously.

“There are few opportunities to advance at our workplace because you have no power and are a minority,” she said. “If you suggest a good idea at a meeting and it works, credit won’t be given to you but to usually a white person that steals and takes credit for your idea. They’ll just forget that you ever made such a suggestion.”

Superwoman said that the only way for a black woman to progress in Finland is to get an education ad learn the Finnish language well.

“If things are bad, they are even worse without education and knowledge of the Finnish language,” she added.

One of the first changes Superwoman would make at work if she were the manager would be to treat everyone equally at work. She said that treating people fairly would create a better working environment.

Superwoman also confirmed that the white co-workers get the best shifts.

* After the Perussuomalaiset (PS) party imploded on June 13 into two factions, the PS and New Alternative, we believe that it is the same party in different clothing. Both are hostile to cultural diversity. If a closet were used to show the differences between both blocs, the PS is openly racist and hostile to cultural diversity while the New Alternative is more diplomatic about it. Both, however, are in varying degrees anti-EU, anti-immigration and especially anti-Islam. A direct translation of Perussuomalaiset in English would be something like “basic” or “fundamental Finn.” Official translations of the Finnish name of the party, such as Finns Party or True Finns, promote in our opinion nativist nationalism and racism. We, therefore, at Migrant Tales prefer to use in our postings the Finnish name of the party once and thereafter the acronym PS.

  1. morko

    I am an Asian, currently living in Finland for more than 3 years and married. Like other foreigners who likes to know the language, I did study the language for a year, which they teaches basic things. Finnish language is not easy so I am still struggling when I passed and studies Lähihoitaja for 1 and 4 months. It was an intense course, plus all my classmates were Finnish. I did graduate last 2017 and became Lähihoitaja (practical nurse).I
    I look for job right away, but it is really hard for me to find a job. I know my classmates got easily job because they were Finnish and language skills is not a problem.

    I did apply for many working place and 1 particular working place contact me if I want to do a TYÖKOKEILU to there place, I stop and think and I said yes because of difficulty to find jobs. Of course I did not understand why I need to make Työkokeilu if I am not a student anymore ( THIS MEANS I DOING THE SAME JOB AS NORMAL BUT NOT GETTING ANY SALARY), the working place said that we try first for a month. After a month I am really confident THAT THEY COULD GIVE ME A SALARY FOR NEXT TIME BECAUSE I DO ACTUALLY THE SAME JOB AS MY FINNISH CO-WORKERS, but I am wrong… Instead they try to give me more contract for more TYOKOKEILU ( WORKING WITHOUT PAY, basically just getting the Kela support). After that, I do really feel that they were using me, because I am not a student anymore and if language skills.. I could communicate with my co-workers and the patients in finnish and they do understand how I talk.
    It is not really nice how they treated me, I did study so hard plus double hard because of the language and they just treated me this way. The person who manage the work place actually told me that I am a fast learner and a good worker, but I really don’t understand why they can’t give me a SALARY. I DID ADDRESS MY CONCERNS AND TELL THEM WHAT I FEEL. STILL NOTHING CHANGE..
    I DID ASK HOW CAN I GET SALARY, the person who manage the workplace said that I should take first the exam before I can get a salary. As matter of fact I do know that some of my FINNISH CO-WORKERS WHO IS NEW TO THE PLACE GET A SALARY, WITHOUT NOT TAKING THE EXAM YET. THIS IS JUST A DISCRIMINATION AND I BEEN USE!!!!

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi Morko, wow, I know how you feel. It is the usual runaround that foreigners get here so that a business can get cheap labor.

      Would you like to write about this for Migrant Tales and tell about similar experiences with other employers. If it happens to you it must happen to a lot of people.

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