Andrei Tuch: Estonia’s Windrush scandal, maybe

A state of emergency is in effect in Estonia until 1 May; if you were wondering whether the current government, including the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party, will try to pull off something sneaky under the cover of the constant coronavirus news – well, here you go, writes Andrei Tuch, commenting on the Estonian interior ministry’s cruel plan to kick out non-EU citizens on its will.

According to a news report in Estonian Public Broadcasting, the Mart Helme-led (the leader of the populist, far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party) interior ministry is drafting a bill that would allow the cabinet to unilaterally revoke the long-term visas and residence/work permits of non-citizens from third countries (countries outside the EU) who become unemployed, and to decide which professions are allowed to recruit from abroad and which aren’t – with no parliamentary oversight or public scrutiny.

What will this mean?

For employees, this would be a return to serfdom – a tradition enjoyed by generations of Estonian peasants who were tied to a particular piece of land, could be bought and sold along with that land, were forbidden to leave, and were entirely at the mercy of the landowner. If an employee’s visa is tied to their employment, as with some of the oil-rich Gulf countries, the employer would be effectively free to do what they want: delay payment of salaries, ignore workplace safety rules or work condition regulations, invent unreachable milestones and fines for not meeting them, etc. The threat of immediate deportation would prevent employees from seeking better jobs or demanding decent conditions.

For employers, the more concerning part is the government’s unilateral decision power on which sector is allowed to recruit from abroad. The decision on who is allowed in and who isn’t is at the sole discretion of the cabinet – not the result of request and consultation with industry umbrella groups or the government’s own research arms, but the ministers’ own best sense of what is right and proper. If, the day after tomorrow, the government concludes that IT is intrinsically Sorosian in nature and a danger to the continued survival of the Estonian people, well, no more work permits for software developers. 

Or, perhaps, the other way around. The claimed purpose of the bill is to force businesses to prefer local staff and to “create mechanisms to protect the Estonian labour market”. Instead of investing into the locals’ education and making them more competitive and desirable (this is the government that completely went back on its campaign promise to increase science funding to 1% of the GDP), the measure would encourage more of them to take on the lucrative position of a rideshare driver or a food delivery person. All so that the grand Estonian nobility does not experience the discomfort of their kooreklops and mulgipuder (local dishes) being left at their doorstep by a person of suspiciously melanin-rich descent.

According to the interior ministry spokesperson, “from now on, the state should have a much better overview of the availability of foreign workers and the ability to assess whether the employment of the foreigner is well-founded or not”. So, if you are a small business owner in need of a particularly qualified specialist for a specific job – let’s say, someone to operate a highly specialised piece of factory equipment – you have to prove to the government that you’ve scoured the Estonian countryside and made sure that a suitable candidate is not hiding in a bush in Võrumaa (a county in southern Estonia).

Evoking the darkest days of early-90s ethnic tension

As per the ERR report, “the ministry is also preparing for some foreign workers losing their jobs in the near future. According to the bill, long-term visas would then also expire and the foreigner would have to return home.” Readers from the UK will recognise this as an echo of their own country’s recent shameful behaviour, deporting long-term settled residents (even naturalised citizens!) out of an ideological imperative to create a “hostile environment” and, supposedly, protect the British workforce (clamouring for vegetable-picking jobs and qualified to take up medicine at the drop of a hat, naturally). Back here in Estonia, the slogan this mindset evokes is one from the darkest days of early-90s ethnic tension – Chumadan, Vokzal, Rossiya. (Suitcase, train station, Russia.)

“The government would make a case-by-case decision based on a thorough analysis involving different ministries,” the spokesperson said, “but it is not clear from the draft bill exactly what the analysis will be based on.” 

Because this government – the government that failed to deliver an increase in science funding or a meaningful jump in old-age pensions, but has instead tried to ram through a dismantling of the existing pensions investment scheme and a halt to a pharmacy licensing reform in order to benefit large chain drugstores and wholesalers, the government where the minister of finance, Martin Helme, (the son of the minister of the interior responsible for this bill) has complained that the press has not stopped holding him to account because of the COVID-19 crisis – is a government you can “trust”.

And remember the lesson from the British and American governments whose ideology was imported into Estonia by the Helmes:

The cruelty is the point.

* The Windrush scandal was a 2018 British political scandal concerning people who were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation and, in at least 83 cases, wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office. Many of those affected had been born British subjects and had arrived in the UK before 1973, particularly from the Caribbean countries as members of the “Windrush generation” (so named after the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948).

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Mart Helme, the leader of the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party, on 24 February 2019 at the neo-Nazi style torch march, organised by the party.

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