Foreign workers at nuclear construction site live isolated lives

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The construction of Olkiluoto 3, Finland’s fifth commercial nuclear reactor, involves 1,200 workers from different countries, who live in barracks far away from the rest of society.
The workers come from around Europe: Poland, Portugal, Kosovo, Albania, and Germany.
The barracks are about 20 kilometres away from any services or local people, and the workers’ contacts with the rest of Finnish society do not function very well in general.

The construction workers spend months and years in isolation, almost out of sight of the rest of society.
Sociologist Anna Kontula became interested in the Olkiluoto construction site, and decided to spend a month interviewing the employees and following their lives.
Kontula has written a pamphlet which will be published on Wednesday under the name Näkymätön kylä (“Invisible Village”), which tells of the isolation of the migrant workers, and of their difficulties both at the Olkiluoto construction site, and at the general level.

“Finnish workers resort to their labour unions, public services, and unofficial networks. With the migrant workers, the networks are very distant, they do not know how to utilise public services, and they often have not heard of the labour unions. All of this underscores dependency on employers”, Kontula says.
Kontula points out that the builders in Olkiluoto are in a much better position than many other itinerant workers. However, underpaying and other abuses have also been found to exist there as well. The quality of occupational safety varies there as well.

Workers from outside the EU have only limited access to Finnish public services and legal protection, Kontula says.
If health care has not been arranged, or if the employer doesn’t let the worker go to a doctor, a migrant worker might find it difficult to seek help in public health care.
“Access to protection from the police and the legal system is less in practice than with Finns.”

Kontula says that official supervision does not sufficiently extend to the Olkiluoto building site, where hundreds of Finnish and foreign companies operate in a chain of subcontracting and a maze of contracts and practices.
“If supervision is not possible even in this kind of a public construction site, how can it work on strawberry farms or in strip-tease clubs?” Kontula asks.
Underscoring the isolation of the Olkiluoto construction workers are a lack of language skills and having to live away from their families. Most of them would work in their home countries if it were economically feasible.

Kontula felt that the status of migrant workers should be improved through increased supervision and above all, through legislation.
“There are people on the labour market with different rights and obligations. It has created two separate labour markets here”, she says.
One solution could be an aliens’ act which does not separate workers into different categories.
“For instance, consideration of the need for labour applies only to the workers. It is one factor that maintains dependence on the employer.”

Kontula feels that the labour unions also face a big challenge, but ultimately, migrant workers need to take action themselves to improve their status, although Finns can ease the process and make it possible.
She does not believe that improving the position of foreign labour would cause problems for Finnish workers.
“At the moment, foreign labour is pulling down Finnish wages and terms of employment.”

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