The labour movement in Finland

A national report to the 6th Meeting of Trade Unionists in and behind the European Left in 2009.

The current round of collective bargaining negotiations in Finland is wrought with contradictions. The employers’ organizations have successfully wielded the global financial crisis as an excuse for many outlandish demands – but more alarmingly many unions seem to have given in and accepted this out of fear of rocking the economic boat.

In 2008, the main employer’s union Confederation of Finnish Industries, representing 70% of Finland’s GDP, announced that new Comprehensive Income Policy Agreements will not be made. The reasons cited were their inflexibility, incompatibility with global markets and the differences between different industries. Now that the negotiations have started, massive layoffs and the nominal 0,5% pay increase originally adopted by the technological industry are being forced upon all unions as “the general line” and presented as the only way out of the crisis with no regard given to the differences between industries.

While in many ways the situation is reminiscent of the 1990’s recession, most companies engaged in lay-offs and pay cuts are in fact still reaping historically high profits. Plainly speaking the claim that pay increases are strictly impossible given the economic situation is simply not true. In reality the harsh methods employed are much more likely to feed the economic downturn by further increasing unemployment and actually decreasing the average worker’s purchasing power, which in Finland is already among the lowest in OECD studies.

One positive development is the demand from the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions to pass a comprehensive minimum wage legislation which Finland still lacks. The demand is a minimum salary of 1 500€ per month for any full time job. The use of rented labour and the resulting dramatic increase in what is known as precarious work is, however, starting to make this demand seem too little, too late to some.

Finland already has 500 labour renting firms and although most of them are still relatively small, they are actively reshaping the job market. Combined with the number of people with otherwise irregular employment – trainees without pay, apprenticeship deals with no intention of hiring, the unemployed used as cheap forced labour – the amount of workers outside conventional employment and thus outside the reach of conventional union organizations is constantly rising. While engaging and organizing this new section of the working class (dubbed the “precariat”) should be one of the labour movement’s main tasks, disturbingly there have even been attacks in union press against the precariat.

Intrinsically linked to the problem of the precariat and rented labour is the problem of importing foreign labour, as the two often go hand in hand. The ever-increasing use of foreign labour to blatantly bypass domestic collective bargaining and the lack of legislation within the European Union preventing this loophole render local labour unions powerless as employers cherry pick their workers from countries with the least favourable collective labour agreements and cheapest wages.

Aside from the obvious problems, such as the detrimental effect this has on any demands by domestic workers, the practice is also directly feeding hatred against foreigners and causing divisions in workers’ movements. The situation highlights the critical importance of strengthening international cooperation within the labour movement and the need for common European minimum standards for salaries and other working conditions.

Sippo Kähmi, postal worker, shop steward
The Finnish Post and Logistics Union PAU
Communist Party of Finland

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