Charities help feed low income kids as strike hits school kitchens for a second day

Kids from poor families are caught in the crossfire of a political battle between the government and unions, as charities & good Samaritans try to help out.

File picture of bread donated to charity which helps low income families / Credit: Apuna Ry

Charities and good Samaritans have been stepping in to help low-income families provide lunches for children this week, as industrial action hits school kitchens for a second day.

The Industrial Union Teollisuusliitto and the Welfare Sector Union JHL are taking part in  strikes this week to protest the government’s plans to make it easier for small businesses to fire employees.

The Industrial Union alone has 100,000 members who could strike later this week, impacting sectors from boat building, the chemical industry, mining and oil refineries; to the forestry industry, farming, textiles and garment industry, and even early morning newspaper deliveries.

The Welfare Sector Union strike on Monday and Tuesday is hitting deliveries and food supplies at supermarkets, health workers at hospitals and health centres, caretakers, cleaners and food service workers in schools.

Charities providing extra meals

In many parts of the country parents are being asked to provide lunch for their children at schools and kindergartens during the strike – and that can be an extra burden on low income families.

“These are continuous and everyday problems for some of us, and this strike and the autumn holiday makes this horrible situation even worse for people who are doing tight of getting proper daily meals and are forced to live with viable support” says Heidi Jaari, Director of Operations at Apuna non-profit organisation.

The group provides assistance to hundreds of low income families who need food, clothing and household goods, and this week they’ve seen an increase in people looking for help to feed their children.

“We have something like 50 food aid deliveries in a week, and this strike combined together with the autumn holidays have considerably raised the need for food help” she tells News Now Finland.

For many Finns with limited financial resources, the weekend is the most difficult and expensive time for feeding their children – especially when they rely on free school meals Monday to Friday. So the situation is even more tough when union strike action closes school kitchen.

“It is a fact that this proper school meal is a big part of everyday nutrition for many children. If that meal is left out, its effect is really big, especially if the child does not get proper meals at home” says Jaari.

In Helsinki, one city centre restaurant Elmos Sport Bistro announced that it would be giving free pizza to a kindergarten on Tuesday, because their kitchen was closed.

“We do not want to be a party to the dispute […] but to help innocent parties” the restaurant wrote in a Facebook post.  “We will deliver pizzas to a kindergarten where children will be left without food”.

Politics and poverty

The ongoing dispute between unions representing workers on one side, and the government and employer’s union on the other side, seems to have highlighted the worst traits of Finnish political discourse.

The closure of school cafeteria during the strike prompted Blue Reform chairman and Europe Minister Sampo Terho saying in an interview that unions are “ready to take the bread from the mouths of children”.

That message was echoed online by Juho Romakkaniemi, the CEO of the Finnish Chamber of Commerce Kauppakamari.

“Political strikes are spreading today so that the union movement decided to endanger the food supply for the children and the elderly” he wrote on Twitter.

Unions have said clearly there is no interruption of service for food service to care homes or food deliveries to elderly people.

Romakkaniemi, who until recently worked in Brussels for former PM Jyrki Katainen (NCP), also said that unions had “lied” to their members about the root causes of the strike action.

Union chief Jarkko Eloranta dismisses this criticism, saying nobody’s health or safety is being jeopardised during the strike action.

“Employers are responsible to organise work and to guarantee the well-being of children. The strike is informed well in advance so that municipalities have had good time to prepare it, as well as parents. Two days is quite a short period of time, so this is not an impossible task to tackle” says Eloranta, President of the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions SAK.

“We have to remember that this government has made substantial cuts to daycare services, as well as other basic social benefits. These changes affect low income families every day and that’s a real problem, not a two day strike” he tells News Now Finland.

Left Alliance leader Li Andersson says she’s saddened by the way the strikes are being framed in political debate, and notes a level of hypocrisy among critics.

“It is sad to see what kind of anger many people feel about the strike of low-wage workers […] If workers try to defend their rights, they are accused of forgetting the children and the elderly” she writes on Twitter.

“Where were the concerns of entrepreneurs when child allowances and national pensions were cut, when class sizes were raised as [childcare] professionals demanded a better salary? It is repugnant that the campaign against the union movement is cloaked in concern for children and the elderly”.

Unions say 10,000 people joined a protest rally in Helsinki’s Senate Square in January / Credit: News Now Finland

Why is the strike happening?

At the heart of the dispute is the core issue of how the government, employers and unions work together.

Traditionally in Finland, these three parties have negotiated together and come up with a workable consensus on any labour market reforms.

At the start of his time in office, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) also went down this route as he negotiated a ‘competitiveness pact’ with the umbrella groups representing unions SAK and employers EK.

Since then, Sipilä’s government has forged ahead with its own path of creating new proposals and pushing through legislation without the agreement of the unions – like the so-called ‘active model‘, that opponents say punishes people for being unemployed.

This new way of government-lead working has put the cat among Finland’s traditionalist pigeons, and the latest dispute is about government plans to make it easier for smaller companies to fire workers.

The proposals from Sipilä would mean that companies with up to ten workers would have less red tape to go through if they wanted to trim staff. The government believes it would boost competitiveness and, ultimately, employment.

Unions disagrees, and strike action over the past month has already forced a concession from the government, which backtracked from its original plans to apply the rules to companies with up to twenty workers.