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Union criticises retail boss over antivax email sent to staff

The owner of the Kärkkäinen department store chain sent an anti-vaccine message to employees, calling on them not to get vaccinated.

The department store chain was founded by Juha Kärkkäinen in Ylivieska, and now also has outlets in Jyväskylä, Lahti, Oulu and Ii. Image: Juha-Petri Koponen/Yle

Juha Kärkkäinen, owner of the Kärkkäinen chain of department stores, has called on the company's employees not to take the coronavirus vaccine.

"I urged them to watch the videos and links and to refuse the jab," Kärkkäinen confirmed to Yle on Thursday.

Kärkkäinen's message to employees was sent through the company's internal communication system, tabloid Iltalehti reported, in which he claimed that Covid vaccines are dangerous and lead to harmful side effects.

The Finnish Medicines Agency Fimea said that it had received about 11,000 reports of side effects related to coronavirus vaccines by last week, by which time over six million doses of the vaccine had been administered across the country.

Labour Law Professor Seppo Koskinen told Yle that the law does not expressly forbid an employer from disseminating anti-vaccine information to employees, as long as the employer does not urge anyone to commit an illegal act.

"The employer also has freedom of speech. However, I do not recommend any employer to act like Kärkkäinen," Koskinen said.

Employer's obligation to provide a safe working environment

Although there is no provision in Finnish law preventing an employer from spreading anti-vaccine information within the company, doing so is a violation of the employer's responsibility to employees, according to Erika Kähärä of services workers' union PAM.

"The employer has a responsibility for occupational safety and health. It is against the spirit of the employer's obligation to even call for the vaccine not to be taken," Kähärä said.

In practice, this responsibility for safety means that the employer must assess risks to employees, such as that posed by a possible coronavirus infection. If the worker is considered to be at-risk, their tasks and duties could be altered, Koskinen cites as an example.

Kärkkäinen told Yle that he does not know the vaccination situation of all of his employees, but the department stores do have similar precautions in place as in other stores, such as hand disinfectant stations at entry points.

"We do not put pressure on people about vaccines or masks," he said.

Call for more guidance from authorities

Koskinen advised Kärkkäinen to review issues related to health, safety and vaccinations with an external party, such as an occupational health specialist.

"In my opinion, the situations related to coronavirus are such that the employer should consult an expert if their own knowledge of the subject is not enough," Koskinen said, an opinion echoed by PAM specialist Kähärä.

Koskinen also called for more guidance to be provided by authorities, such as from the Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman, which could advise on the processing of personal data within the workplace, for example in relation to health or vaccination information.

"Here, guidelines should be drawn up for employers on what to ask about taking the vaccine and what to not ask. This way, employers would not have to settle things in their own way," Koskinen said.

Far-right links, anti-semitic views

However, Kärkkäinen told Yle that, in his view, he is protecting his employees by providing them with the anti-vaccine information.

"I am so socially responsible that I call for more research into this matter and for consideration to also be given to taking the vaccine," Kärkkäinen said.

The retail magnate has previously made headlines because of his strong links to far-right groups, the publishing of anti-semitic texts in freesheet newspapers and a conviction for agitation against an ethnic group.