Trade unions boss: “The situation is pretty drastic”

SAK Chairman Jarkko Eloranta says the crisis is an opportunity to make positive changes to workers rights, and in the wider labour market.

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File picture of Jarkko Eloranta / Credit: SAK

The trade unions are talking, and the government is listening.

Last week’s €15 billion Government bailout package, and measures to try and safeguard Finnish jobs during this stage of the coronavirus pandemic, was in large part proposed a few days earlier by trade union organisations and employers’ federations.

It was a step towards the normalcy of the Finnish tripartite system where traditionally discussions and decisions about big labour market initiatives was a three-way process between Government, and organisations representing the workers and their employers – something that went drastically out the window during Juha Sipilä‘s time as prime minister.

“It is perhaps the renaissance of the tripartite process. The Government listened to us very well, and we made this package which the Government was happy about, and we have had discussions about how to implement the package” says Jarkko Eloranta, the Chairman of the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions SAK.

Eloranta’s been fielding calls all week, talking to workers and union representatives, about the unprecedented impact the spread of Covid-19 has already had on the Finnish economy, and how this is just the beginning.

“I think the crisis has hit first the restaurants, hotels, that kind of small business, but also larger enterprises in those sectors. And then when it comes to grocery stores they are doing well but in small specialist shops the situation is quite severe” he tells News Now Finland.

The trade union PAM, which represents people working in private service sectors like hotels and restaurants, is expecting to see tens of thousands of temporary lay-offs in the coming weeks says Eloranta, with a number of employers already starting negotiations.

“The situation is pretty drastic” he says.

File picture of Foodora courier bag outside a restaurant / Credit: iStock

Difficult times for freelancers, gig-economy workers and entrepreneurs

Although there’s been financial help announced last week for many established businesses, the gaping hole in the plan is how to help Finland’s freelancers, gig-economy workers and entrepreneurs.

Over the last decade Finns have been actively encouraged to give entrepreneurship a try – failure is success! – but that means many entrepreneurs haven’t had a regular income as they’ve tried to launch and build their business; perhaps haven’t kept their YEL contributions up to date; or have invested their ‘sweat equity’ in company growth.

Similarly with the more recent rise of the gig-economy there’s a whole strata of workers who juggle one or two jobs, making it fit into other aspects of their lives like study or family; and it’s the sort of job opportunity with a low threshold for entry that appeals particularly to immigrants.

There’s very little direct help on offer so far for these type of workers in the government’s rescue plans.

“It really shows that we have very many things to fix there, and those people who are working self employed, entrepreneurs or gig economy are very vulnerable” says Eloranta, who in an ideal world would want these type of workers to have an employment contract that covers sick leave benefits and unemployment rights.

“Light entrepreneurs don’t really get anything if you are sick or your business is shut down. And they are not so eager to pay pension contributions, and sick leave is connected to pension payments so this shows the vulnerability when you’re not obliged to pay a certain amount in a month or a year” he explains.

Other workers in special categories with employment contracts but not currently entitled to unemployment benefits include many staff working in the theater and media sectors, musicians and athletes.

In other parts of Europe governments are acting directly to help freelance and self-employed people. In France self-employed workers can get €1500 from the government with a simple self-declaration, and suspend payments on rent and household utilities. In Spain the government is paying €660 to self-employed people; while Germany has promised €50 billion of direct emergency payments for small businesses and self-employed workers.

Eloranta says there’s room for change across the entire landscape for entrepreneurs, freelancers, self-employed people and gig-economy workers and says it’s likely there will be more government movement on these areas.

“We still need to have more things to be done by the labour market organisations and the Government” he says.

“Crisis is always an opportunity to make things smarter and in a more clever way. But it’s a little bit sad that we have to have a crisis before we make some change.”