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A Chinese Chef was Forced to Work Mad Hours in Finland

 A Chinese Chef was Forced to Work Mad Hours in Finland

Published 3. Jan 2019

text by Risto Rumpunen

Names and places in this story have been replace in order to protect the victim and his close ones.


Chef Mr. FX contacted Finnish-Chinese Alliance’s volunteer worker on September 2014 five years after he had first arrived to Finland. In China FX had trained to become a chef. His training included three years theoretical studies, two years in practical training and trainee-ship period in a restaurant. After graduating he heard a neighbour talking about opportunities working in Finland. The neighbour’s children had been studying there. He had known his neighbour’s parents for a long time and felt he could trust them. He was ready for and adventure.


Small town


Mr. FX travelled to Finland to a small town that is located three hundred kilometres north from the capital Helsinki. His boss Ms. Q’s was lady in her mid-30’s. She was operating a Chinese restaurant in a local shopping centre at the heart of the small town. Ms. Q’s mother helped her running the restaurant. Occasionally Ms. Q’s Chinese boyfriend was also there helping out. 


Ms Q asked FX to come with her to open a bank account. They went together to bank, where he signed an application to open an account and was given an ATM card that Ms. Q took. At the time FX spoke no other languages than Mandarin Chinese. In order to be able to work in a restaurant in Finland, an employee is required to pass a test to get a hygiene passport. FX travelled with his boss to Helsinki to take the mandatory test that is available in various languages including Mandarin Chinese. FX passed it with ease. He felt it was rather easy for any person, who has been trained as a chef. At the time FX felt that his boss Ms Q was intrusive as if she had tried to keep him away talking to other Chinese restaurant workers.  


The only chef, always at work


At the restaurant in the small town’s shopping centre FX’s was the only chef so he was forced to do everything. He slept at his boss’ living room whilst working long hours for almost every day from dawn to midnight. When he started to complain about his working condition and demanding that there should be someone to assist him, Ms Q told him that she was planning to hire an aid and another chef. A person came to help him washing dishes and occasionally cutting vegetables but no one else arrived. After working for weeks long hours alone in the kitchen, he was exhausted.   


FX doesn’t remember getting paid at all during the first three months. In September he received €100 in cash and in October €700 in cash from his employer. In December when his employer still hadn’t hired an assistant to help him nor had paid his salaries, his contract was terminated. He received his last payment €800 in cash stuffed inside an envelope. After getting it, his boss’ boyfriend drove him to the town’s train station, told him to take a train to Helsinki and left him there.


FX got into a train and travelled to Helsinki, where he knew no one. He was forced to stay helpless in the main railway station for a night. He tried to get in contact with people, who could speak Chinese. The first people he tried to contact were Thai and Korean, who spoke no Mandarin Chinese. Hours later he met two Chinese, who had moved to Finland to work as cleaners. They suggested that FX should try to get a job from a restaurant in Tampere. He travelled there and spoke to two restaurant’s owners, who were prepared to pay him €800 in cash per month, but he refused the offer insisting that he wanted to paid officially and pay his taxes. So no deal was done and instead he returned to China.      




Back at home in China, FX fell into depression. He was shocked about his fellow countryman's cruelness towards him. He felt as if he was physically and mentally paralysed. Slowly he started to recover, when he searched information about working rights and conditions in Finland.


FX decided to return back to Finland after he had found a new job offer from a popular Chinese website The website offers jobs for Chinese speakers around the world. His new contact was a Cantonese businessman, who offered him a new job and promised to respect all his rights in Finland. FX then signed a contract that followed Finland's restaurant workers’ union’s standard rates and terms.


New promises


FX travelled to another small town in central Finland, where a giant paper company dominates the town’s economical life. FX was the only chef in the kitchen whilst two trainees from Shanghai served clients and helped him to order material.   


Officially on paper, FX’s salary appeared to be according to agreed union rates and his employer deducted his housing and food benefits from his salary. On paper they appeared to be calculated according to normal rates. Officially FX’s salary was set to be €1580 per month. That sum minus taxes and compulsory that an employer has to deduct from an employee’s salary was then paid into his Nordea bank account.  


The restaurant in the small town was owned by a Chinese couple, who lived near the capital Helsinki. The owner couple’s wife Mrs L visited the restaurant on weekends whilst her husband’s visits were random.


On paper FX’s housing benefit was valued according to normal rates that people pay for renting apartment in a small town far away from the capital. The rent for an apartment was valued to be €450 per month and this sum was included as part of his earnings out of which his total earnings are taxed according to local and national tax rates. The price that FX was officially for renting an apartment in the small town would have normal if he had had an apartment. In reality he was living in the restaurant and sleeping in its cleaning closet. 


FX employer also charged him €250 per month for being able to eat and drink in the restaurant. Normally restaurant chains offer chefs and workers possibility to eat at a work place and an estimated taxing value is added on the top of a person's earnings. It is currently about five euros per days – a lot less than what FX had to pay. In the end after taxes, compulsory social costs and others expenses FX received only little over €600 per month. 


Rushed out of a view


Once FX remembers being rushed out from the restaurant. He was suddenly asked to move in hurry into a local dormitory. After spending three days there, he was taken back to the restaurant, where he continued working long hours and sleeping in the cleaning closet, and seldomly had days off work.


The restaurant had a Finnish name, that was based on an old trading route between Europe and China. The company that operated the restaurant, had other business activities as well which included importing variety of goods such as leather products and electrical equipment from Asia to Europe.


In the small town the restaurant flourished. It had steady stream of clients from lunch till late at night. But since FX was the only chef in the restaurant, he became more and more exhausted for his work overload. When he started to complain about his massive work load and not getting paid for working overtime, his employer claimed that working long hours and not having holidays was part of his deal included into his contract.


After working for nearly a year, FX gave his working permit to his boss so she could renew it and he could continue working in Finland. He waited for months. When the boss yet again failed to deliver his working permit back to him, he demanded that they have to go together to a local police station to ask for it. At the station Mrs Q, who acted as an interpreter at the station, told FX that his working permit application had not been accepted and he was forced to return back to China.


Before FX was due to go back to China, he found another Chinese restaurant in a much bigger town little, where he had worked earlier. He was also able to renew his working permit. FX's new employer operated a restaurant outside the city centre. He settled to live in an apartment that his new employer offered to him. At first, FX did only day shifts, had weekdays off and prepared lunches for clients working in an industrial area.


In the summer of 2013 FX was forced to work on Saturdays and Sundays without extra pay. When he tried to resist and complain that he couldn’t cope with working such long hours and weeks without holidays, his employer became verbally aggressive towards him. He started to have more disagreements with his boss, after he had complained that the restaurant had far too limited choices of raw vegetable only Chinese cabbage, onions and carrots. His employer told him to obey orders, do as he have been told and shut up.  


In March 2014 before FX was set to renew his working contract and work permit, his employer started systematically verbally abusing him and his quality of work. Again, he left and returned back to China. After getting back his working permit in China, he returned to Finland and started to work for a restaurant in the heart of Helsinki.


FX worked in the Chinese restaurant regularly twelve to thirteen-hour in a day from morning till 11 pm, usually six days a week having just a day off in a week. The place was in a nice location in close vicinity to best tourist attractions in Helsinki. It was built inside of a large red brick warehouse that hundred years ago served as a customs house for ships that delivered goods to the port of Helsinki. A food blogger and a critic wrote very kindly about the place as one of the best Chinese cuisines in town. FX heard about it from another employee, who worked there and understood Finnish. He was pleased to hear that restaurant had been noted for its quality and his work was appreciated by clients even when his employer was indifferent about it and didn’t even bother sharing that information with his staff.


Searching for decent working hours


Overloaded of work FX decided to search for a job with more decent working conditions. FX long and heavy work load put strain on his body. He started to have random back pain attacks. He felt forced to find a place to work, where he could do more decent working hours. He then found a company that run a restaurant called near the Helsinki-Vantaa airport. He worked there only three weeks until it became clear that the owners couldn’t pay his salaries on time.

After his departure from the previous restaurant, where he had worked, closed down, and a new Chinese restaurant started in the same premises under a new name. 


Fears that employers start spreading bad rumours


FX's next contract was short at a company that run a restaurant in Helsinki city centre. It lasted just three weeks because he wasn’t prepared yet again to work over-long hours with minimum pay. After that FX was on trial for a month at a restaurant chain that operates few restaurants in the suburbs of Helsinki, but the company didn’t offer him a permanent contract.


FX started to fear that perhaps his former bosses had started to spread bad word about him. No one had complained about his level of professionalism but his complains about overlong hours might have triggered employers spreading bad words about him. He soon found another restaurant, but his contract there lasted only ten months because he wasn’t prepared again working over-long hours without extra pay. Fortunately, he then found another Chinese restaurant in heart of the capital, where he continues to be working at the time of writing this. 




FX can’t still speak any other languages than Chinese. In spite of that he has been resiliently demanding his rights to be respected according to Finnish normal working standards and terms. FX contacted SKA’s (Suomen Kiinalaisten Allianssi ry - Finnish Chinese Alliance) project worker after he had received his permanent working permit. He was given help in filling applications and claiming his legal rights. 


When FX was briefly unemployed after working six years in Finland on permanent working permit, he applied for an unemployment benefit together with a person, who could understand Finnish and Chinese. At first when he received a letter from social services in English, he didn’t understand what was written on it and didn’t remember asking for anyone to help reading it and lost it. After that officials claimed that he had not even applied or filled an application form for unemployment benefit that he was entitled to have, so he was asked to apply it again. 


FX also wanted to have a KELA card (National Health & Social Welfare card) and in order to have it, he asked his former employers to send him certificates when he had worked for them. Some of them replied and sent him the required information but others didn’t even reply. An employer claimed that he had worked two months less that he had claimed to have done.  


In 2013 before writing down the contract in Lahti, FX had joined Finnish restaurant workers’ labour union PAM and asked their representative to take care of his cause. He wanted to be compensated from the work that he had already done. His earlier efforts to get justice had come to halt after it became clear that there was only his word against his employer's word.


PAM sent out a letter to an employer and waited for them to respond. It took months before they received any answers. It became obvious that the employer didn’t bother answering or perhaps they were playing time. FX claims were pending for half a year before him and SKA (Suomen Kiinalaisten Allianssi ry /Finnish Chinese Alliance) realized that a representative of the labour union had done nothing to advance the case. Together with SKA’s representative FX asked the police to investigate if his first two employers had violated his rights.  


The police took FX stories seriously and interviewed people he was up against in the first two small towns where he had worked. These cases were investigated under a law that deals with probable work-related extortions and harassments.


An employee’s tax rebate paid to an employer’s bank account


The police investigation revealed some unnerving characteristics about FX’s former employers. FX’s first employer Ms.Q, who run the Chinese restaurant in a small town’s shopping centre, reassured the police that she had done nothing wrong and proved on paper based on her accountant’s testimony that she had paid salaries on time according to standard terms and rates. On paper she proved that FX had been paid €1480 per month. This was harsh contrast to FX’s testimony, who claims that he didn’t get paid at all and didn’t ever even get an access to his own bank account. After the police interviews, a local prosecutor decided not to bring charges against anyone.


In the second small town, where FX worked and slept in the restaurant’s cleaning closet, the owner of the restaurant had paid FX’s salary and taxes on time, deducted his so-called housing and food benefits, compulsory pensions and social costs correctly according to the law to his personal bank account. On paper everything looked fine. Only a small mistake hinted that things were not as the employer had claimed them to be and how cunning the boss might have been: When FX had paid too much taxes, his tax windfall had been directed into his employer’s bank account. 


Legal deadlines


Many Finnish laws include sections that specifies how long time one has time to press charges against the perpetrators. If the deadline has passed it is possible but rare for the police or a prosecutor to act upon the case by starting an investigation. According to Finnish law deadline for pressing charges against work related harassment or violations on workers’ rights is two years from the date when the claimed violation occurred or was carried out.


In Helsinki a local district court’s public prosecutor dropped the case against FX's employers for possible work-related extortion on the grounds that the deadline to press charges on a crime or an offence like this had already been passed. On the prosecutor statement he also wrote that since most evidence in this case were based on FX's word against to those he claimed to have abused his rights, there were not enough concrete evidences to make his case solid.


On behalf of FX, SKA had applied the labour union to assist on his case in a legal fight. After months of waiting the labour union agreed to do so and pay his legal fees. After that SKA's representative filed their legal claim on behalf of FX.


Small compensation


FX had kept list of his massive working hours, but his employers claimed that they had kept his work load strictly to regular working hours according to the law. Some of his former fellow co-workers, who acted as witness on behalf of his former bosses, claimed that they all had been working normal hours. According to their testimony chefs were able to arrange together they own working schedules and shift them with each other’s as they pleased. According to their testimony, there were no signs of force or harassment. FX suspects that his former colleagues lied because they feared of getting fired if they obey they employers. 


Finally, with help of respected law firm familiar with these kinds of cases, FX managed to make a settlement with a former employer and received €1500 compensation from unpaid overtime work that he had done. He continues working in Finland as a chef in a Chinese restaurant.