Nepali restaurants in Finland have become so popular in the past 20 years that in many places they have started replacing Indian diners in Helsinki and other cities. It now looks like there was a dark side to this success: four Nepalis restauranteurs in Finland have been found guilty of human trafficking, discrimination and tax evasion.
One of the Nepali migrant restaurant workers, Maila, was brought to Finland by an accused to work in Mount Sherpa restaurant in the town of Kuopio in Varkaus district court. Police started investigating the establishment after he filed a complaint, and found two more Nepalis were also underpaid.
After the verdict, Maila has had to endure threatening messages from his former employers. “I was aware enough to know my rights, but most Nepalis who come here are not. I wanted to show fellow Nepalis that they have to be aware of the risks,” he says.
There are a range of Nepalis in Finland from engineers and managers, teachers, as well as students who sometimes work on the side as cooks and waiters. Earnings are good, and Nepali restaurants have become popular in Finland with their modified menus that combine naan and curry combined with dal bhat and momos.
But beneath the surface, there have been indications that all is not well. There was no problem if they worked in Finnish companies as the labour laws are clear and strict. But when workers are brought to Finland through personal connection, they have to accept the salary offered so they can pay back loans. Few Nepali workers are not willing to talk for fear of losing even the jobs they have, but the Finnish press has reported on South Asian restaurants selling work visas, trafficking, and violating Finnish labour and tax laws.
Last month, Finnish District Court Judge Minna Koskinen from North Sawo District Court found four Nepalis Basanta Adhikari, Purna Adhikari, Srijana Ghimire and Ava Pokhrel guilty, fined them a total of € 227,199 and sentenced the main employer to prison for 1 year and eight months and another to six months. They also had to compensate Maila, Kancha and Saila with back pay.
Maila has a masters degree in Business Management, but could not find a job so took cook training to work abroad. When a friend approached him to go as a cook to Finland where his brother owned a Nepali restaurant, he readily agreed to migrate.
An agreement he signed with the owner set a full salary as per Finnish government rules, and working hours stipulated by local labour laws with weekends off. However, he was made to work round the clock with no weekends. The employer also opened two accounts in Maila’s name, one having salaries as per the contract to show the Finnish authorities. But he kept bank cards which he and his wife used for personal expenses. He deposited some money into Maila’s other account. Police used evidence from the two bank cards in their investigation, and presented it to the court.
Maila says he learnt this was standard operating procedure in many Nepali restaurants in Finland. After a year-and-half, Maila filed a complaint, but first had to prepare to be ostracised by the Nepali community. He says he wanted to make his employers and other South Asians here accountable to their workers who were mostly not educated, not aware of their rights, or afraid to raise their voices against their employers.
“As laws in Finland are very strict, we do not get involved in legal issues of Nepali workers here,” explains Basanta Gautam of the Non-resident Nepali (NRN) National Coordination Council of Finland, “however, we think there is a need of awareness to both employees and employers regarding employment rules and regulations in Finland.”
As per Finnish law, since all five perpetrators admitted to their crimes and agreed to pay all financial obligations together with interest and taxes, they have been exempted from imprisonment, but will remain under probation.
Another Nepali in Finland says many migrant workers have come to Finland on verbal agreement from a restaurant owner, but they are desperate to get a toe-hold in Europe. Employers think they are actually doing the workers a favour by bringing them over, and some restauranteurs say not all worker complaints are valid and they “play the victim card”.
NRN CEO Hemant Dawadi says: “Safe Migration and respectable foreign employment concerns us, and we provide advice and counselling whenever approached.” He admitted that NRN had no figures for the number of Nepalis who work in establishments owned and managed by the diaspora. Although the organisation gets frequent complaints, Gautam says the NRN Associaton is not a policing authority.
After the verdict, Maila has had to endure threatening messages from his former employers. “I was aware enough to know my rights, but most Nepalis who come here are not. I wanted to show fellow Nepalis that they have to be aware of the risks.”
Some names have been changed.