Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Counting the Estonian Salary

So, on a recent jaunt over to the capital I finally met up with Vello Vikerkaar, who absolutely exists and is in no way the figment of a different expat journalist's imagination. Over spare ribs and Medovar, Vello related to me roughly the same story as he put up on his blog - that of making an honest effort to get a day job in Estonia and failing at the point of salary negotiations.

Ever since independence, when foreign capital started flowing into the country and Estonians began to try their luck abroad once more, there has been a Holy Grail: working for a foreign company and getting Western European/American pay, but staying here with Estonian living expenses. There is a limit to the efficiency of telecommuting, but expats who are here for the long haul do tend to be freelancers of some ilk. Vello says that the ratio of effort to reward that he gets from freelance work makes fulltime employment very unattractive by comparison, and I guess that makes sense.

But then, even Vello himself confessed that he was missing the warm and fuzzy feeling that you get from a steady paycheck. The problem is that the jobs he was offered did not pay very well. Fine, staff journalists get peanuts in Estonia (unless you work for one of the big foreign-owned sheets Postimees or Ekspress, or maybe even then), which is why I'm a technical writer with an ego trip and a Baltlantis press card rather than a reputable reporter or columnist. And yes, ten grand for an Editor-in-Chief of anything is pitiful, moreso in Tallinn. 

Part of the problem is expectations. There is a guy on one of my forums, an American software developer who wanted to move to Europe for a long time. He finally convinced his wife, and started job-hunting. He had little trouble setting up interviews with big names in IT; his skillset was in vogue, his credentials were unassailable and his abilities impressive. Any code shop in big European IT hubs such as Dublin or Prague would have been lucky to have him; however, he found that they all paid far too little. His intention was to improve or at least retain his US lifestyle, and he just could not see how he could do that on a Prague salary.

Another part is the difference between an expat and a consultant. Expats are not coming here because somebody thought their expertise was worth a lot of money. They happen to be here, for whatever life reasons, and so they are actually competing against locals, for the same jobs. Who's going to hire a guy who isn't fluent in Estonian? (And trust me, you're not fluent. I was born here and I'm not as fluent as I'd like to be. Vello is pretty damn good, but even then people have to re-adjust their brains to parse his Estonian. Giustino... makes a really, really good effort.) Do I really need to repeat how much the Estonian mentality is based on the language? Add to that a reasonable availability of competitive skills due to all the Estonians who went to study and work abroad, and an expat looking for a fulltime job is at a great disadvantage before he sets out.

Let's go back to Vello's words: Estonian employers benefit greatly from the transitional status of the nation’s young professionals: many are still living with mom and dad, or have only recently moved out on their own. The population-at-large doesn’t carry first-world financial burdens which will drive up salaries and, versus their western counterparts, they’re able to live on a lot less money.

What kind of financial burdens? Support for elderly family members? Estonian pensions are far smaller in comparison to salaries than almost any First World welfare state. Mortgages? The real estate boom has driven up prices so far that even after the cooldown, the average Estonian can still buy far fewer square meters with a year's pay than the average European. And still real estate here is ridiculously cheap by First World standards: I know a couple of British boys who took a long-term contract to work in Tartu. They were getting far less money than they could at home, but it was well compensated by the fact that they didn't have to pay London rents.

And that's the odd thing. When I was buying my apartment - at the age of 22 - my online friends from the First World kept commenting with "are you, like, rich or something?". I'm not. I'm in IT, and so I get paid fairly nicely by Estonian standards, and I supplement my income with freelance translation and documentation work, but the money I earn is by no means fantastic. And yet, if I ever do go and live abroad, it will not be for the money, and it will not be forever. The simple truth is that with my Estonian salary, I can afford a mortgage, a car, nice holidays, and general stuff. I've had a look at this. Almost anywhere else in the world, doing what I do now and getting the local salary for it, my living standard would be lower.

The life of an expat is expensive. There might be a few places in South-East Asia where a Westerner can achieve subsistence level as a roving reporter for the Lakewood Herald, but that does not apply to Eastern Europe, not for a long time now. It certainly doesn't apply to Estonia, which has always claimed to be Nordic rather than Eastern. And being immersed in a foreign environment means overpaying for everyday stuff - because you want comfort food from Stockmann, or because you don't know the tricks that are self-evident to locals, like never buy anything from K-Arvutisalong. Yet expats from the First World - especially ones that are not propelled to Estonia by roots or marriage - inevitably do it to feel like colonial masters out to impress the natives. This attitude is not confined to Wolverhampton stag parties. But the price of a pint is not what it used to be, and all the blondes in Estonian nightclubs are no longer impressed solely by your accent - they expect you to buy them expensive drinks. 

It's not really the Estonian salary that is the problem.


Dasanjos said...

I totally agree with you!
That being said, I have also to agree with Vello.

Many Estonians I've met left for summer jobs in Ireland or other European Union country with higher minimum salaries.

And in Estonia, the language barrier makes more than lowering your odds in the Estonian Market. Its hard to negotiate if you don't know the economy, business culture, etc...

Many foreigners friends of mine ask always the same: How much is a normal Estonian salary? With my very basic Estonian Language knowledge, I've managed to get some information about that (

With that info, they manage to make their wages doubled. As you said, its capitalism!

Giustino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giustino said...

Dude, I am not sure if I am fluent in English. And I know some times my naine doesn't understand what other Estonians are saying.


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