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Union: Criminalise underpayment of workers

Prime Minister Sanna Marin promises action as Labour minister slams culture of worker abuse.

The exploitation of workers in the cleaning industry was highlighted by an investigative report published in Helsingin Sanomat on Sunday. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

Finland’s services workers' union PAM has proposed the introduction of new measures, including making the underpayment of workers a criminal offence, in response to the latest report on the injustices and abuses workers are subjected to in Finland’s cleaning industry.

The investigative report (siirryt toiseen palveluun), published on Sunday by daily Helsingin Sanomat, revealed that cleaners were forced to work excessively long hours, given insufficient breaks and denied holidays.

Suvi Vilches, a lawyer at the service union, told Yle that workers in the cleaning industry are especially vulnerable to exploitation as they are often immigrant-background people with little knowledge of their rights.

"It has been well known that the exploitation of foreign labour happens, and that it takes place specifically in the service sectors," Vilches said.

Vilches added that she had proposed three measures aimed at addressing the exploitation of workers to a working group set up by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy in early June.

The first proposal was that underpayment of workers should be dealt with more severely by authorities, either by making it a criminal offence or by imposing hefty fines.

Need for increased resources

Vilches’ second proposal referred to Finland’s Regional State Administrative Agencies, which she said must be given increased powers and resources.

There are six such agencies in Finland, which work closely with local authorities to "strengthen implementation of basic rights and legal protection …. and also to provide a safe and healthy living and working environment in the regions," according to the agencies’ official website.

Thirdly, Vilches suggested that the police must also be given adequate resources and increased expertise to deal with the issue.

The proposals all appeared to receive the backing of Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who tweeted (siirryt toiseen palveluun) (in Finnish) on Sunday that her government would be looking to introduce "legislative changes and the strengthening of resources" to tackle the problem.

"The situation in the Finnish labour market, in which worker abuse is so widespread and systematic, is entirely untenable," Marin wrote. "Concrete improvements, such as adequate means for authorities to address underpayment and other shortcomings, are required."

Worker exploitation evident in other sectors

In response to the Helsingin Sanomat report, Minister of Employment Tuula Haatainen told Yle that a "rotten culture" now existed in certain sectors, not just the cleaning industry, in which workers are constantly and systematically exploited.

"Certain industries now have a culture like this. Among them are the service industries, the start up sector, food courier services, and the construction industry," Haatainen said, adding that there are "clearly features of human trafficking here".

Story continues after photo.

Employment Minister Tuula Haatainen. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

Finland was recently criticised in a global human trafficking report produced by the US State Department which found that a lack of resources, including 'specialised government personnel', was contributing to the problem of worker exploitation.

Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo told Yle that the government was aware of this issue and it had already been taken into account in the government programme.

"Regional authorities have recently pointed out that police resources are too scarce," Ohisalo said, "For this reason, the government has added more police resources to the government programme."

According to Ohisalo, this will include the creation of a specialised police unit focusing solely on human trafficking cases, due to be established at the beginning of next year.

Reports rarely lead to prosecutions

However, according to specialists interviewed by Helsingin Sanomat, criminal reports rarely lead to police investigations as the evidence is often so contradictory that the prosecutor cannot proceed with a prosecution.

In some cases, disputes between an employee and an employer, for example over pay, have been considered civil disputes and have therefore not led to an investigation.

Helsingin Sanomat also reported that workers in the cleaning industry had sought assistance and advice from the service union PAM, but felt that the association was reluctant to help.

"It's unfortunate. I can’t comment on individual cases, but in general I can say that there are cases that are one person’s word against another. They are difficult to take forward," PAM lawyer Vilches told Yle.