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Union "worried" about surge in social and health care temps

One union says the use of temporary workers in social and health care should not be a substitute for hiring permanent employees.

Social and health care temp workers like Minna Kumpumäki often work short gigs as home health care assistants. Image: Tanja Kröger / Yle
Yle News

The use of short-term contract workers in Finland’s social and health care sector has exploded in recent years, with some firms reporting rapid growth in recent years, according to an informal Yle survey.

However Tehy, the union representing social and health care professionals, said it views the trend as worrying, and warned that it risks undermining the rights of workers on short-term contracts.

Yle spoke with six temporary staffing firms and found that the practice of hiring workers for short-term gigs was especially prevalent in the public sector. One of those firms was municipally-owned Sarastia Rekry, which supplies gig workers to municipalities and municipal associations.

CEO Jaana Jantola said that the company supplies thousands of short-contract workers to 148 municipalities throughout Finland. She noted that business had tripled in a few years. Customers include hospitals, schools, daycare centres and home and disability care units. According to Jantola, the firm receives up to 15,000 orders each month and provides work for 8,300 gig workers.

"The biggest reason for the popularity of gig work is the freedom to choose where, when and how long [people] work. It is also flexible. Gig work better creates space for other aspects of life," she noted.

Jantola said that demand is sometimes so high that there has sometimes been a shortage of temp workers.

"Demand is high"

Seure Henkilöstöpalvelu, which is owned by the Helsinki University hospital district, HUS, and capital region municipalities, said it had similar experiences. According to CEO Anne Sivula, in 2018 the firm’s revenues were 98 million euros, a figure that grew considerably in 2019. Seure had 15,700 active workers on the books in 2019.

"Demand is high and we have grown in recent years. Every day we send out hundreds of people to health care units as gig workers," Sivula added.

She listed three factors driving growth in the business. She said that gig work was suitable for units with variable or sudden staffing needs. Gig workers also help save time and money, she added.

"The financial situation is becoming more difficult. Social and health care reform will make the efficient use of personnel essential. A third strong trend is that more workers want freedom of choice more than permanent work," she pointed out.

Yle also reached out to other staffing firms Barona, Eezy, Onni Hoiva and Monetra, from Oulu. Some indicted greater demand for temp workers in social and health care. Eezy said that the social and health care sector accounted for a marginal share of its revenues, but noted that during the first part of 2020, sales had slightly more than doubled.

Other firms reported a slight drop in business during the coronavirus epidemic. "Demand will rise again in the future, but not as much as in previous years," Seure’s Sivula commented.

Cost-cutting a target

Social and health care temp worker Minna Kumpumäki provides services for Sarastia Rekry customer, Kymsote, the southeast Finland municipal association that includes Hamina, Kotka, Kouvola, Miehikkälä, Pyhtää ja Virolahti.

Kymsote outsourced its personnel replacement services last year. It said that customer orders via outsourcing partner Sarastia Rekry has ranged from fewer than 2,000 to more than 2,500 gigs per month this year.

Kymsote personnel director Maija Kaltakari said that gig work is performed by practical nurses and registered nurses. Doctors sometimes take up temporary positions, too, but not through Sarastia Rekry.

Most often, Sarastia hires temp employees to work three-month stints in home health care positions, for example. Kaltakari said that the temp agencies have improved access to substitute staff for regular personnel. She added that supervisors now spend less time on recruitment and salaried staff perform less overtime work. Additionally, employers can save money.

"Our goal is for supervisors to be able to focus on supervisor work. Before access to temp workers, more time was spent on trying to get replacements," she noted.

According to Kaltakari, the rise of gig placements in the social and health care sector speaks to changes in the labour market. She said that millennials in particular prefer gig work.

"Young people especially want to choose when they work. Even if they are offered permanent jobs, they want to do gig work," she declared.

Union: Workers' rights at risk

Else-Mai Kirvesniemi, a lobbying director with Tehy, the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals, said that there has been some increase in the use of gig workers in social and health care in situations where replacements are needed.

"For example, in some hospital districts, employers have switched from rotating substitutes to using gig workers," she noted.

She said that she is worried about the trend and added that temp workers should not replace hiring permanent staff.

"If someone has a permanent job and [occasionally] substitutes [for others], they gradually get to know their clients. If you always take on board new workers through temp agencies it can cause problems," she noted.

Although staffing agencies provide short-term workers, the client company or organisation is responsible for supervising the worker and their output. According to Kirvesniemi, one of the challenges of the temp system is workers' legal protections.

"Terminating a job contract is significantly easier with a temporary employment contract. There have been no major abuses. However the use of temporary staffing always creates the possibility to undermine [workers’] rights," she added.

The union director said that in practice, this is evident in the fact that collective agreements have been watered down in some hospital districts.

"The goal is either to reduce costs or to cut down on the administrative burden. They have attempted to move to less robust collective agreements," Kirvesniemi noted.

She said her message is that few workers choose to do gig work on a full-time, permanent basis.

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