Finland must focus on integrating migrant women and their children to boost their contribution to the economy and society

Juha Sipilä 2018

Mr Juha SIPILA, Finnish Prime Minister. Copyright: European Union

This article is brought to you in association with OECD.

Finland should offer labour-market-oriented integration support to all migrants, strengthen efforts to identify and address early vulnerabilities, and work more closely with employers according to a new OECD report.

Working together – Skills and labour market integration of immigrants and their children finds that, over the last 25 years, Finland has seen one of the fastest growth rates in the migrant population recorded in an OECD country. In parallel, the gap in the labour market outcomes of native- and foreign-born has diverged. And, with limited opportunities for low-skilled employment, labour market integration is increasingly challenging.

Women, in particular, are struggling to integrate; many are locked into inactivity, and face incentives to stay in the home. Early integration support in Finland sends the inactive, including many immigrant women, down a separate track from those who are actively seeking employment. This is unusual among OECD countries and risks increasing the distance between the inactive and the labour force, locking them into inactivity. On top of this, women eligible for the Child Home Care Allowance may find that staying at home is as financially advantageous as engaging in training or paid employment. The OECD recommends that the incentives engendered by these policies be re-examined.

The employment gap between migrant and native women is substantially larger among those with children under 18 than among those without. Even after five years in Finland, migrant women with children see employment rates that trail 47 percentage points behind those of native-born women with children. “Policy needs to do more to support the early integration of immigrant women” said Mari Kiviniemi, Deputy Secretary General of the OECD, presenting the report in Helsinki with Finland’s Minister for Labour, Jari Lindström.

“Since 2015, we have implemented a number of measures to improve the integration of immigrants,” said Mr Lindström. “I am glad to notice that the OECD, too, recognises that we are on the right track. However, the work continues. We must find better ways to promote especially the integration of women and children.”

If immigrant mothers stay at home for many years there may be long-term consequences for their children; in terms of reduced enrolment in preschool during the critical early years, limited exposure to the Finnish language, and the concomitant implications for their chances of succeeding in school. As in many OECD countries, the children of immigrants do worse in school in Finland than children with native-born parents. In Finland, however, these differences are particularly striking. According to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, mathematics performance among native-born children with foreign-born parents lags that among those with native-born parents by equivalent to close to two years of schooling. Alongside Mexico, this is the largest gap of all surveyed countries. Efforts should be enhanced, says the OECD, to identify and address early language and learning difficulties before initial setbacks have the chance to compound.

The large number of asylum seekers that arrived in Finland in 2015 put integration squarely on the agenda, and the country was quick to develop a number of innovative integration policies in response. In particular, the report stresses Finland’s commitment to policy innovation and rigorous evaluation, such as the Social Impact Bond; a programme, funded through private investment, with the ambitious goal of moving recent migrants into employment within four months of the beginning of their participation.

With a recovering economy and an integration infrastructure that has been modernised into a modular and more flexible structure, Finland is rather well equipped to integrate recently arrived migrants with heterogeneous needs. According to the report, it is important that this flexibility is accompanied by monitoring and exchange of information on training and outcomes to ensure that no migrant falls through the cracks and resources are targeted to where they are most needed.

Across the OECD, knowledge of the host-country language is a key factor in determining the speed and success of integration. The Finnish language, in particular, is both highly complex and rarely spoken outside Finland. In this context, Finland has placed much emphasis on language training and taken the unusual step of publicly financing language courses for all new migrants who are outside employment.

However, more should be done to combine language learning with workplace experience, and the report suggests that there is more scope to work with employers to facilitate early labour market contact. Enabling employers to offer apprenticeship should be a priority in this context. The OECD report also recommends that authorities share information on migrant skills and widen eligibility to wage subsidies to make them available to migrants immediately upon finishing their integration training.

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