Few Lithuanian employers would we willing to hire refugees. Reluctance to deal with unfamiliar working cultures and differing attitudes towards work is one of the reasons, but companies that have experience of hiring migrant workers say Lithuania needs to open up its labour market to make up for the shortage of skills at home.
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Some companies say they have run into problems due to different traditions and attitudes towards work, but even they do not reject the possibility of hiring more refugees due to the labour shortage.

Cultural differences and variations in work culture present some challenges, according to Lithuanian employers, but they remain positive and emphasize that their experience with foreign workers has been both good and bad.

Qualified refugees are welcome

The Quercus Juventatis lumber company near Rukla has employed many refugees, according to Gintas Bagužis, one of its directors. The company calls them foreigners rather than refugees.

Bagužis explained that one Syrian employee currently working in the company sets the standard for all of his local workers. The man, a highly qualified welder who fled his country for political rather than economic reasons, capably handles detailed structures and has integrated into the staff.

The company has also employed refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, but things were allegedly more difficult with them.

“In these countries of south-west Asia, the work culture and understanding of quality are very different from those in Lithuania or Europe. I had a worker from Georgia – the problem was the same. Though he lived in Lithuania and spoke Lithuanian, he had a totally different understanding of quality. The standard of quality for work in Europe is higher and the perspective on work is incompatible. All of them left our company after working with us for some time, either on their own or at our request,” said Bagužis.

Bagužis said he had also had negative experiences when hiring a refugee from Ukraine. However, another Ukrainian specialist whom the company found itself and invited to Lithuania, works very well – as a highly qualified tiler.

“People are very different. You can't use the same label for everyone in a certain country. Both qualified specialists and poor workers, for example, leave Lithuania for other countries,” said Bagužis. “Currently, there are both economic migrants and war refugees. I think that means that there will be educated people who will be useful in the labour force.”

Because Lithuanian industry feels a shortage of specialists, Bagužis said he welcomed migration of qualified workers from Syria to Lithuania. Though he did not know much about Syria, he said he knew that the industry in that country was well-developed and that it had prepared a wide spectrum of useful specialists.

“Lithuanian people's opinions on work are getting worse – now, they can easily go abroad and compare Lithuanian salaries with foreign ones, even though their own qualifications and work capabilities rarely meet the requirements. I think that workers from abroad will create healthy competition,” said Bagužis.

Though he had had good and bad experiences hiring foreigners, Bagužis said he would be inclined to hire refugees in the future as well.

Every worker has his own rules

Vita ir Ko, a company that creates exceptional hand-made confections, also has extensive experience with hiring refugees. Though the head of the company, Vitalija Budnikienė, said she had the best intentions towards refugees, she said she understood why the country's employers avoided such workers. She said working with them was a challenge.

“It's not the worker who adapts to the company's time, it's the company that must adapt to them. A refugee from Ukraine working with us must begin work 20 minutes before the rest of the confectionery line because her bus arrives 20 minutes before work starts. In the evening, she leaves work 20 minutes ahead of everyone else. If she wanted to, of course, she could wait inside until work starts, but this doesn't suit her. We, of course, have good intentions towards refugees, especially when there's a labour shortage in Lithuania. However, they certainly won't hurry or make an effort for the company,” said Budnikienė.

She also remembered a refugee from Afghanistan. Apparently, one Monday, he came to work two hours before work was over – he could not come earlier, he said, because he needed rest. “There are cases like this. We have production lines – people need to coordinate their work. On the other hand, all kinds of things happen with Lithuanians now as well – it's a difficult time,” she said.

She said she had once employed many Chechens. Most of them were friendlier, she said, but they also had problems.

“We certainly took the rituals of their faith into account. For example, I knew that a woman manager, when entering the company, could not shake her workers' hands. We had night shifts, and I knew that when midnight came, they would stop the line, put down their dough and run to pray and bathe. We got along well with them, of course, I was positive with them and understood them. Other employers, however, need a common order and common results. They don't care that someone needs to pray at midnight,” said Budnikienė. “I just wish they would also show the same humanity, that they would understand that we have our own order in this country, that they would fulfill their tasks the way we do. Why should our women, experienced craftspeople, go clean up where the foreigners could not?”

Regardless of these nuances, she said that refugees integrated into the staff rather well, and that people were friendly to them and explained everything. She said she was determined to hire migrants if the future if the labour market lacked workers.

“You can't set yourself against them,” she said. “In Jonava, we are used to people of many different ethnicities, we find it interesting to hear and understand them.”

The labour market needs no protection

Although there are public discussions on the integration of migrants into the job market, Bagužis said he did not understand why the Lithuanian labour market needed so much protection. He was convinced that unemployment in the country was much smaller than statistics suggested because many people were employed illegally – something he said was especially true in the construction sector.

He said the situation was made worse by the fact that there are no special provisions for employing refugees. Bagužis claimed that many of those currently in Lithuania are from Afghanistan and that Lithuania was just a temporary stop for them. “I reject this refugee group, but there's nothing left then, just a few Ukrainians,” he said.

Bagužis also said he was surprised that the “gates were closed” for specialists from Ukraine.

“Our Ukrainian worker explained how, for example, Polish people are very clever: for Ukrainians who want to work, it's enough to make it to the border, where they get a work visa for half a year. It took me a year to bring a qualified specialist – and it cost me €1,000 because I had to hire professionals to take care of the documents,” said Bagužis. “If the state thinks that labour will flood the market when they open the labour market, they are mistaken. Ukraine is an interesting situation: statistics will show that everyone earns the minimum wage, but specialists actually earn quite decent wages. It's not that simple for Lithuania to lure them in. For the tilers from Kiev who came to work for us, a salary of €1,000 seemed too low. They said they make something similar there,” he said.

Unused to being hired

In an effort to suitably prepare for the arrival of refugees into the Lithuanian labour market, the Kaunas labour exchange surveyed 670 regional companies. Only 18% of them said they would consider hiring refugees. Other either could not answer the question or said that they would not consider the possibility.

“This topic is always being discussed with business leaders. Many companies say that financial support might change their perspective on this target group, but there currently aren't any laws stipulating such a thing,” Milda Jankauskienė, a specialist at the Lithuanian Labour Exchange's Communications department, told Lietuvos Žinios.

Refugees apply for jobs the same way that Lithuanians do. They, unlike people from the third countries, receive no additional conditions.

“Refugee integration into the labour market isn't that simple: there's a different social environment, a language barrier, education – these are factors that make a smooth transition into the labour market difficult,” said Jankauskienė.

“Because of these reasons, we work very intensively with refugees in their own surroundings and together with social workers. The clients are introduced to companies and work conditions. They are also guided to specific companies where they can evaluate their abilities in a real work position.”

Another important aspect of integrating new arrivals, said Jankauskienė, is the development of entrepreneurship. Many refugees or displaced persons had owned their own businesses or stores before coming to Lithuania. Therefore, for them, working for a salary becomes complicated due to personal reasons.

The business skills they have are further developed in a “mini labour exchange”, where clients are introduced to opportunities for independent activities, the conditions for opening a business, and the help offered by the state and the labour exchange. In this way, they are encouraged to continue what they had started in their own countries. For example, one displaced person from Ukraine began the process of creating a joint Ukrainian-Lithuanian company.

Lithuanian Labour Exchange statistics indicate that the following companies in Jonava have employed refugees: Edega, Quercus Juventatis, Vita ir Ko, Baldai Jums and A Grupė.

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