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Demonstration in defence of unemployed draws 8,000 protesters to Helsinki

Anger on behalf of Finland's unemployed was on display in Helsinki Friday. The union confederation SAK called the protest in response to government changes to state benefits for the jobless.

miekkarilava senaatintori
The February 2 demonstration in Helsinki resisted the government's "active model".

Thousands of protestors gathered in Helsinki's Senate Square on Friday to protest new government laws that penalise unemployed people who don't work at least 18 hours over three months or join a work based training scheme. The demonstration was spearheaded by Finland's largest blue-collar union confederation SAK, which boasts over one million members.

SAK director Jarkko Eloranta addressed the crowd at the event, saying that the government's so-called "active model" is in defiance of earlier government promises to keep its hands off unemployment benefits. He says the three-party coalition made this promise after it pushed through an earlier initiative, the Competitiveness Pact, in 2016.

The Pact saw unions agree to wage freezes, holiday bonus cuts and 24 more hours of work annually. The government argued at the time that this was necessary to create new jobs and make Finland more competitive on the world market.

"There is a great risk that many people will encounter a five percent cut [in unemployment benefits], and we cannot accept that. Agreements must be adhered to and honoured. The cuts to unemployment security must be rescinded," he said.

Respect for human dignity

The SAK boss said the active model and the resulting discourse have revealed the unfortunate reaction that some people in Finland have to defenders of the jobless and vulnerable.

"Surely we don't want a Finland in which the employed are scorned; where their human dignity is called into question," he said.

Eloranta also responded to criticism that his umbrella union responded too slowly to the active model legislation, as it waited until the law change had already come into effect before it called for protests. He said a citizen's initiative seeking to repeal the model has already gathered 140,000 signatures, which he argues is more than enough proof of citizen disapproval.

"The least the government can do is to halt the active model sanctions until the citizen's initiative has been handled, and we see where this is heading. It would be doing a service to the unemployed," he said.

Unpopular gov't rep defends plan

The atmosphere at the event was calm and things were going smoothly until National Coalition Party MP Juhana Vartiainen took to the microphone to defend the government plan. It was hard to hear what he had to say over the crowd booing.

He said that the ultimate problem confronting Finland's labour market policy is the fact that the country's unions have been charged with running labour negotiations for decades.

Vartiainen held that Finland had created a system of subsidies that made people passive, and that the current centre-right leadership had no choice but to activate the unemployed and develop more job-seeking services.

His sparring partner at the scheduled appearance was Left Alliance Chair Li Andersson, who replied that the people who have lost their jobs during the economic slump need more carrots and not sticks. She said the government model is oppressive and only creates more bureaucracy.

Wildly different figures estimating losses

Later in the day, Finland's leading business owner advocacy organisation EK announced that it had estimated that the costs of Friday's strikes and demonstrations would rise to 120 million euros.

It argues that over 150,000 employees walked off of work on strike, causing over a hundred million euro's worth of losses for their employers. It calculated that average Friday turnover in the transport and port operations that saw the most walkouts is more than 400 million euros, with one day of export trade by sea alone worth 290 million.

"The labour dispute lowered Finland's gross domestic product by approximately 120 million euros. The larger and worse damage was however done to Finland's reputation and our reliability as a business location," the EK's chief economist Penna Urrila said in a statement.

The union confederation SAK, which initiated the industrial action, had its own estimate of 18 million euros in total losses. Their calculations were based on the overtime that will be necessary to complete the work that was left undone on Friday.

SAK came up with 18 million by adding up the average overtime wages required for what it estimates to be the 200,000 people who went on strike.

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