A picture with Mobile Futures graphics and the text: The desired and the unwanted

Brains and hands: The commodification of immigration to Finland

31.3.2023 Gabriel Olegário

Finland often fares positively in global rankings concerning key measurements of human developments, mostly on those concerning an equal, stable, and democratic society. Thus, Finland ranks as the most stable and one of the freest countries as well as luring international visibility by being consecutively ranked as the happiest country in the world. At the same time, Finland is a country that, in a relatively short period, transformed itself into a contemporary knowledge-based economy despite its acute economic situation in the early 1990s. Combining an economy that requires a foreign labor force, the decreasing number of working-age people, and the current government policies based on a human-capital basis might bring unequal treatment to different migrant groups’ integration practices. 

These reflections aim to highlight the categorization of high and low-skilled migrants’ and the challenges of enforcing the paradigm of human-capital citizenship [1] as immigration admission and integration. Further, this post encourages societal awareness of the definitions and the unequal treatment of different migrant groups’ integration and admission to Finland, and the question on how a human capital-based immigration system is intertwined with two-way integration.

After all, who is a ‘high-’ and ‘low-’skilled migrant?

As seen in recent public discussions in Finland, some categories of migrants are perceived to be more desired than others, raising the question of who is welcomed and unwelcomed in Finland. A lot has been discussed around high- and low-skilled migrants on the political agenda, but who is a ‘high-’ and ‘low-’skilled migrant, and who is welcomed? The first challenge is the exact definition of the dichotomy between ‘high-’ and ‘low-’skilled migrants. In high-income countries, the perception that certain groups of immigrants are more desired than others to perform economic needs is mostly market-oriented, as ‘high’ are associated with university degrees and ‘low’ with manual labor. In addition, the narratives shared by different sectors within the Finnish society, such as institutions, political parties and politicians, and the labor market, determines the way society perceives these flows of migrants to/from Finland. 

This ‘notion’ of what and who is desired and unwanted does not necessarily consider the actual skills content and nature that high- and low-skilled migrants bring to Finland, but solely qualifications that are easier to be evaluated and recognized. On one hand, along with the profitable positive impact that highly skilled migrants bring to the host country, the same group is commonly associated with a positive image of a sort of ‘ideal’ or ‘wealthy’ migrants (sometimes described as international talents in the Finnish context) due to the pre-integrated features and domestic credentials that are easy to recognize in Finland. Even though their repertoire of skills, education, and expertise may give them a relatively privileged position compared to other migrant groups, it is relevant to identify how diverse this group is, with different expectations and needs as they may lack support from both their home and host countries.

On the other hand, low-skilled migrants in Finland are commonly intended to fill positions that do not require formal education and qualifications. This means that the motives of low-skilled migrants to come to Finland are various, as some of the immigrants came in family groups with no intention of returning to their origins, as well as young guest workers to accumulate money, return home, and repeat this economic cycle seasonally. Globally and in Finland, foreign-born low-skilled workers tend to have lower salaries, fewer rights, and a lack of social protection compared to low-skilled Finnish natives, and have less recourse to unions and other enforcement bodies which increases the precarity and exploitation of this group.

Both high- and low-skilled migrants are diverse groups and the immigrant–native integration gaps due to the imperfect adjustment of immigrants and natives are important to be acknowledged in order to safeguard trust and cohesion in Finnish society. Thus, below is highlighted the issue of the increasing use of a human capital-oriented admission and integration system, which influences how high- and low-skilled migrants are treated differently.

Human capital citizenship outshining the human right to citizenship

How might Finland’s ability to attract and retain these international talents be an issue? The increasing incentives and competition to attract international talents might enforce a migration admission system based on someone’s skills and abilities in Finland. This changing logic of immigrant admissions on a market-based principle is relevant for a new understanding of human-capital citizenship, which has been outshining the human right to citizenship. Hence, instead of immigrants being regarded as bearers of human rights, citizens came to be imagined as bearers of human capital. One of the key questions that this thought provokes in attracting international talents is whether Finland is interested in importing ‘brains’ and ‘hands’ as commodities, or is prepared to integrate individuals with different religions, faces, languages, and cultures.

Following the rise of human-capital market fundamentalism, a global shift in migration admission has been from labor shortages in the economy to the recruitment of highly skilled migrants independent of market conditions. Thus, human-capital citizenship in the context of Finland can lead to the stratification of migration admissions, as evidenced by policies that are more advantageous to highly skilled migrants than to low-skilled migrants. As a clear contrasting example, highly skilled workers are admitted as bearers of human capital and open pathways for future citizenship, while low-skilled workers with (un)recognized personal attributes are recruited on a basis of a shortage of labor and admitted as guest workers only. In practical terms, it means that the same two-week fast track to apply for residence permits for specialists, growth entrepreneurs, and their family members is not applied to low-skilled immigrants.

This discussion might bring more questions than answers to conceptualize distinct groups and their political importance. Therefore, a two-way integration discussion should also focus on the implications of human capital-based immigration and challenges in/lack of integration. An important question that needs to be answered in the public space is if we want to live in a society in which only highly educated and productive individuals are welcomed and valued. Furthermore, a two-way integration mutually beneficial for the foreign-born population and the minorities in Finland is most likely seen as a positive approach when we find the common core human attributes that connect to those around us. By flourishing a sense of societal care, it is possible to create social and economic well-being by equally admitting and integrating native/foreign-born high- and low-skilled workers into the same Finnish labor market.

[1] Human-capital citizenship is the idea that immigration admissions are based solely on an individual’s skills in the labor market.

[2] Two-tiered labor market is understood as when immigrant workers are mostly occupied in low-wage sectors such as construction and services, even if they have higher qualifications to do other jobs.

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