Army Of One: Fighting The Government Over Unemployment ‘Punishment’

Helsinki man's citizens' initiative races past 100,000 signatures in just two weeks, forcing the government to re-think a controversial new sanction.

File photo / Credit: iStock

A Helsinki man admits surprise that his citizens’ initiative to stop new government rules on unemployment benefits has received more than 100,000 signatures in just a couple of weeks.

Martin-Éric Racine filed the motion before Christmas, as a way to protest a new law that cuts 4.65% from unemployment benefits if claimants don’t find a job or go on a training course.

Within the first week it had already passed the 50,000 signature threshold which means the initiative must be considered by parliament.

Long Term Unemployed

Racine has been unemployed for nine years, and struggled to find a meaningful job in that time. He felt the new law was deeply unfair, and punished people just for being out of work.

“I am one of those unemployed people, the last thing I need is adding insult to injury” Racine tells News Now Finland.

“I am already desperate for work. I am not getting any younger, and that means that my career options are running out. The longer this goes on, the more likely I won’t be qualified for anything but menial work” he says.

According to 2016 statistics from the OECD, almost 30% of unemployed Finns are considered long-term unemployed: that is, they have been unemployed for more than one year. Finland’s long-term unemployment figures are higher than Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but considerably lower than the EU28 average.

“I basically figured out that the simplest strategy for this citizens’ initiative to succeed is to simply request the reversal of all recent changes to the law, since the knowledge about which paragraphs of which law are affected already is in the legal draft passed in parliament” Racine adds.

Political Divide

When the new measure was brought before parliament for a vote, the decision was split entirely along party lines.

The three parties in the ruling coalition – Centre Party, National Coalition Party and Blues – voted in favour of imposing the new sanctions on unemployment benefits.

Opposition parties – Social Democrats, Greens, Left Alliance, Swedish Peoples’ Party, Christian Democrats and Finns Party – voted against the new bill.

The government won with their slim majority.

National Coalition Party: In Favour Of Cutting Benefits

Juhana Vartiainen (NCP) has been outspoken in support of the sanctions, saying it brings Finland more into line with other Nordic countries, and that people on benefits can’t expect to be supported by the state indefinitely if they won’t make an effort to find work.

“I am confident the majority of the electorate understands that unemployment insurance cannot be unconditional and generous at the same time” says Vartiainen, an economist by training.

“The signal to the unemployed is that we support your income but we don’t want you to stay on income support, we want you to get a job” he says.

Vartiainen tells News Now Finland that this 4.65% reduction in unemployment benefits is a “very modest step” towards encouraging people to be more active to find work, but concedes that when new labour market policy initiatives are introduced, they will always face opposition from other politicians, unions and sections of the public.

“Measures like this help to shrink the unemployment rate permanently” says Vartiainen.

Social Democrats: Oppose Benefit Cuts

The idea that this new law simply brings Finland into line with other Nordic countries is “horseshit” according to Social Democrat Ville Skinnari.

“I think it’s quite misleading to compare Finland with Nordic countries and say Sweden, Denmark or Norway are doing the same thing” says the Lahti MP.

The Social Democrats say that other Nordic countries are investing much more than Finland in education and help for the long-term unemployed. Skinnari notes that in Denmark for example, one employment officer at the local job centre will handle 12 cases.

In Finland, the same officer would deal with 160 unemployed people.

“It’s a nice headline, let’s get the unemployed active. But why the Social Democrats are against it, it’s basically punishing unemployed people in a situation where there is no job available. At the end of the day it’s a matter of demand and supply” says Skinnari.

Citizens’ Initiative

Politicians are split on what the outcome of the citizens’ initiative will be, when it comes back to parliament for consideration.

“I sit in the committee which will probably look into this citizens’ initiative and I can assure you we will see to it this policy remains in place” says National Coalition Party MP Juhana Vartiainen.

Social Democrat Ville Skinnari disagrees. He sees cracks in the government coalition and predicts the Blues – former members of the Finns Party – will withdraw their support for the bill.

“I fully believe that once this public initiative enters the parliament, the government gets a different picture of feedback from people and officials, that there are not enough resources for this model, and it is unfair for Finns” says Skinnari.

Martin-Éric’s Future

The last two weeks have provided Martin-Éric Racine with a front row seat to the dirty business of politics.

When he first introduced the citizens’ initiative, he found that politicians were targeting aspects of his life to try and discredit him. But he was heartened by support from some sections of the media and commentators.

“I could clearly see that the few people who blew way out of proportion some random facts about me were only doing this out of despair because they were getting a big slap against their freshly minted law. I was shocked for half a day” says Racine.

In the short term he hopes to cement a job with Finnish peacekeepers in Lebanon, putting his language skills in French and Estonian to good use. But the idea of a long-term employment plan still eludes him.

“I no longer know what my ideal job might be because I have been unemployed for so long that my focus has shifted from career plans to ensuring my day to day survival”.