Finland through the eyes of immigrant cleaner “ beer on walls and faeces on floor

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The wall, bed and floor are covered with beer. Sheets have been strewn on the floor and the toilet reeks of cigarette smoke.

This is a typical start to the working day for Nepalese Arun Gurung, who works as a cleaner on the cruise ship Viking Line.

“It looks like a natural disaster’s hit the cabin. It shows you how Finns like to party,” Gurung laughs at the Viking Line terminal.

Not that Gurung finds this in any way strange. Having lived in Finland since 2008, he has had time to come across almost everything.

He does not mind cleaning up after Finnish party-goers as long as he gets paid for it.

Office cleaner was the most common occupation among immigrants in 2011, with around 20 per cent of cleaners having foreign background, according to Statistics Finland. There are no statistics on the matter, but it has been estimated that up to half of the cleaners in the capital region come from abroad.

“Cleaning work has a somewhat bad reputation and native Finns are not willing to accept cleaning jobs,” explains Minna Toivanen, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

Timo Sairanen from the cleaning company SOL Palvelut Oy confirms that companies in the cleaning sector would suffer from a labour shortage without immigrant employees, with around a fifth of the company’s employees hailing from outside Finland.

“It’s anyone’s guess if the work would get done without immigrants.”

Nongyao Duangprasertfrom Thailand starts work before six o’clock every weekday morning, with the round in the Kallio administrative building starting a couple of hours before the office workers turn up.

Duangprasert came to Finland 19 years ago because of a Finnish man. The marriage ended in divorce after two years. Duangprasert sought to file for divorce already after a year and eight months but was told by the police that to she would not be allowed to stay in the country if the marriage had lasted less than two years. She wanted to stay in Finland.

For the first 14 years, she looked after children. She applied for vocational training in the cleaning field several times before getting lucky. There were plenty of applicants for the courses, mainly immigrants.

Before coming to Finland, Duangprasert worked in a factory, packing clothes in plastic wrapping. She prefers cleaning and Finland has become home. “Older generations may be reserved but young people in Finland are more outgoing. Here people say hello on the corridors,” she says.

She has, however, noticed that some conversational topics, such as age and pay, are out of bounds. In Thailand, these are perfectly acceptable questions to bring up in conversation.

Jamila*, who works in a hotel, knows how to spot Finns. “If you say “moi” or some other greeting, the reply is always “hola” or something. Only foreigners reply, Finns never say anything, just stare back with an empty look.”

Jamila came to Finland from Africa as a refugee.

She does not feel she can be totally free in Finland either. And she is not talking about racism now even though that exists too. She is referring to general attitudes.

“Finns don’t get humour. People take sarcasm seriously.”

Jamila cleans hotel rooms, which are often in a state of chaos – including toilets with faces and urine all over the floor. That is something Jamila encounters daily.

“When you go to a hotel room, it’s like going into somebody’s home. People know someone’s coming as they’ve put a sign on the door requesting cleaning.  I’d never let anyone come to my home if it was in such a state. These people just don’t care.”

When a Finn asks a cleaner to help, they do it impolitely, says Jamila. But she does not let the rude behaviour get her down.

“I always behave in a happy manner. I just feel sorry for them. They should wake up and take a good look around them!”

Jamila says she does not particularly enjoy her work but does not have a choice, not having Finnish skills.

Circumstances, not choice, are what lead immigrants to work as cleaners, according to Minna Toivanen.

“Inadequate qualifications and lack of work experience, a low level of language skills and employers’ prejudiced attitudes often play a role,” she explains.

Qualifications may not open any doors if they have been gained in a country that is culturally remote from Finland. Stories about engineers and doctors doing cleaning work in Finland are rife.

For Gurung, even vocational training carried out in Finland has not been enough. Gurung, who is in his late 20s, came to Finland to study tourism and only needs to complete his thesis work to gain a qualification. He has also looked for work in his own field but has not been able to get any. Employers have stated his lack of Finnish skills as the reason for not hiring him.

Even though unable to find work in his own field, Gurung considers Finland a second home. He likes the cool climate and the way everything functions.

“Education is among the best in the world. The United States and Britain were also options but there I would have had to pay tens of thousands of euros for the course. Here, there are no tuition fees.”

He managed to get by with less than10,000 euros a year before starting to work. Not entitled to student benefits, he got the money from his father.

Now Gurung is writing his thesis while working full time as a cleaner. He got the job through a Nepalese friend who also cleans on cruise ships. The work is not what Gurung wants to do but he is not complaining.

“The work is well organised so it’s easy to do.”

He says that even the messiest of cabins do not faze him.

“You can party any way you like if you can afford it,” he says.

He suspects that the main reason why Finns drink more than the Nepalese is that they have more money.

And money is something a cleaner in Finland will never have in abundance.

Cleaning companies hire exceptionally high numbers of immigrants. Minna Toivanen believes that they are acting as frontrunners.

“It may be that to start with cleaning companies had to hire immigrants because they couldn’t get Finns to do the work. Then they realised that immigrants were good employees, often much better than native Finns. Many immigrants have a very positive attitude towards work.”

She remarks that the cleaning industry has also broken down the traditional gender roles.

“Traditionally, mainly women have worked as cleaners but these days also many immigrant men work in the field,” Toivanen says.

Gurung also says most of his colleagues are men.

The Working Papers 2/2014 report published by Statistics Finland reveals that the pay gap between sexes is narrower among immigrants than native Finns.

But if the pay gap is smaller, so are the wages. A cleaner’s starting wage is less than 10 euros an hour. On average, an immigrant office cleaner earned 10.03 euros an hour in 2011, translating into wages that are 7 per cent lower than the going rate for Finnish office cleaners, according to statistics compiled by Statistics Finland.

In practice, many earn less than this. A vast majority of immigrants do not belong to any trade unions, which weakens their position in wage negotiations

“Trade unions receive more reports on disputes between employers and immigrant cleaners than Finnish cleaners,” says Sirpa Leppäkangas, an expert at PAM, a trade union for employees in the private service sector.

Leppäkangas says that most cases of mistreatment go unreported.

“The most glaring examples concern cases where the employee is dependent on the employer. The employer may have even confiscated the employee’s passport. This is very close to human trade. Unfortunately exploitation of labour has become more commonplace.”

When Jamila started as a cleaner, she often worked eight days straight without any days off. She does not know if she received appropriate compensation for her work because she was not aware of the terms of the collective agreement in the industry and the employment contract she signed was only available in Finnish. She did not dare to turn down any shifts out of fear of losing all work.

Now she holds a permanent position and feels safe not to accept every shift she is offered.

Nongyao Duangprasert says she would not be significantly worse off if she lived on benefits but she does not want to do this. She earns enough to pay for her rent and air fares to Thailand at regular intervals.

“A Thai gets bored without anything to do,” she says.

She believes the main reason why some Finns prefer being on dole to working as a cleaner is laziness.

“I’ve realised that Finns look down their noses at cleaning work,” she says.

Gurung agrees that cleaning work does not carry much prestige but does not blame people who turn down cleaning work in favour of benefits for being lazy. “That’s human nature. If you can get something for doing nothing, why wouldn’t you take it?”

Gurung, however, wants work for his money. “If you move to a new society, you have to integrate into it.”

According to Toivanen, cleaning work can serve as a good stepping-stone into working life for immigrants and native Finns alike. She worked as a cleaner herself before starting her studies.

“Many immigrants are happy to gain experience of working life in Finland.”

But there is always the risk of not finding better-paid work later on.

This is exactly what has happened to 49-year-old Duangprasert, who feels that finding other work is nigh on impossible and has no plans to change careers.

What would she do if she could choose?

“I’d be the president,” she says and bursts into laughter, leaning back in her chair.

“Only joking. I think this is a good job for me.”

*Jamila is not the real name. She does not want to reveal her home country.

About Post Author

Anthony-Claret Ifeanyi Onwutalobi

Anthony-Claret is a software Engineer, entrepreneur and the founder of Codewit INC. Mr. Claret publishes and manages the content on Codewit Word News website and associated websites. He's a writer, IT Expert, great administrator, technology enthusiast, social media lover and all around digital guy.
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