Criticism for harsh new unemployment terms: “Treating us like children”

Government-inspired changes to Finland’s unemployment policy will come into effect next week. The new policy will, among other things, lower monthly unemployment benefits and impose stricter penalties on those who refuse to take a job on offer. Not everyone thinks the reforms will succeed in getting more people to work.

Kuvituskuva irtisanotusta miehestä.
Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

Finland’s estimated 400,000 unemployed will face multiple changes in their unemployment status and payments next year, after new legislation takes effect. Benefits will be cut, along with payment durations, and it will become harder to turn down a job without consequences. Unemployed persons who are registered with a TE employment office will also be required to come in for a monitoring interview every three months if they want their benefits to continue.

The government pushed for the changes last year in the hopes that the new moves will incentivize the jobless to find work.

Petri Ijäs, an unemployed tool manufacturer from Helsinki, has his doubts.

“I honestly can’t believe that it will help. It’s basically just cuts to the programme. There was one good point: that we could work two weeks as a full-time entrepreneur without losing our benefits. That at least gives us a chance to do something, even if I am personally not interested in the idea,” he says.

More marginalisation and frustration

Pertti Honkanen, a lead researcher at Finland’s social benefits administrator Kela, is also sceptical that the reform will be effective.

“We are led to believe that unemployment is just a matter of correcting the mismatch: if only the jobless would look for work more actively, and meet up with the right employers, then things would be fine. This could be the case for some individuals and workplaces, but if we think of the problem from a nationwide perspective: there are over 400,000 people seeking work through various kinds of employment services. This makes it clear that it’s not such an easy nut to crack,” Honkanen says.

Honkanen says the changes are likely to make the unemployed feel even more marginalized and frustrated.

Both men agree that the regular interviews could potentially be a good thing.

“If the interviews really do map out the different training and employment opportunities, then they’re a good thing,” says Ijäs.

Honkanen also sees the advantage of the TE offices being in closer contact with their customers, but wonders if the mandatory consultation times will take time away from other more important work.

“On the other hand, there’s the concern that the TE employment office resources will be strained, and help won’t be available if a customer tries to call of their own accord. I’ve often heard that it is really hard to get through to speak with anyone on the phone at the offices.”

Wage subsidies down when they should be up

But the upcoming changes to the wage subsidy put Ijäs off.

“It's so much smaller. I’ve thought that when I have been unemployed for one year, I could enter the third sector – work for a non-profit or something. We had even talked about it, but with the cut to the wage subsidy, they won’t be able to hire anyone. The pay would have been so low that I wouldn’t have been able to make ends meet. The old model was better,” he says.

The wage subsidy is a government benefit intended to make it easier for the unemployed to be hired.  Up until 2017, the subsidy accounted for as much a third or even half of the starting salary of unemployed people who have re-entered the labour market.

Kela researcher Honkanen says that while it is a good thing that the requirements for receiving the subsidy have been made more flexible, he says it is still one of the last places the government should be saving.

“There’s been a cutback of work supported by wage subsidies last year, when there should be more.”

Jobless Ijäs ventures to bet that Finland's unemployment figures won’t be any better a year from now.

“That’s how you treat children if you want to motivate them,” says Ijäs. “Forcing them to do certain things and prohibiting them from doing others. It’s not right in this day and age that adults are treated this way.”

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