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Finland has 60,000 'working poor', tens of thousands at risk of poverty

Figures show that the median salary in Finland is 2,900 euros, but many people earn a lot less than that.

Daniel Böckerman
Daniel Böckerman is a technician at Töölö hospital in Helsinki. Image: Jouni Immonen / Yle

In figures released on Thursday Statistics Finland said that the median income in Finland is just under 2,900 euros, while the mode--the most common salary--is 2,600 euros. That means half of working people earn less than 2,900, and many of them scrape by on much less than that.

Daniel Böckerman is one of them. He works as a technician at Töölö hospital in Helsinki and takes home just 1,400 euros per month. Before taxes his salary is 1,800 euros, and that income level doesn’t leave much room for luxuries.

"I feel like I am the 'working poor'", says Böckerman. “I want a new car but I can't afford it on this salary. Holidays take a lot of saving. I haven't managed to pay for a gym membership."

His job includes cleaning operating theatres, corridors and changing rooms and dealing with hospital waste.

"In my opinion the pay in this job is too low when you think about the risks," said Böckerman. "For example on the wards there is norovirus and tuberculosis, so the risk of infection is higher."

Böckerman lives with his wife, and after bills and living costs he's left with around 800 euros a month for food and other expenses.

60,000 'working poor' in Finland

Mikko Jakonen of Jyväskylä University says that in-work poverty is common in the care, service and retail sectors, as well as cleaning.

Definitions of poverty vary, but one commonly-used indicator is working for 60 percent of median pay. That corresponds to around 1,200 euros after tax in Finland. Some 60,000 people satisfy this definition of 'working poor'.

That doesn’t, however, tell the whole story of in-work poverty. Jakonen’s research suggests that there’s another group of some 100,000-400,000 who work in the gig economy or on short term contracts and use social benefits to make up the shortfall. That means they are not counted as 'working poor'.

"In Finland poverty is relative, so poverty doesn't necessarily mean people are destitute but it is difficult to make ends meet each month," says Jakonen. "This could lead to debt, and for instance people eating the cheapest possible food."

Under-employment is one problem, according to Jakonen, as are insufficient hours. When income is unstable, people struggle to keep the bureaucracy informed so their benefits will make up the shortfall in income.

"As low-paid work increases and at the same time terms of work are weakened, people are forced to rely more on social benefits," Jakonen adds.

Union: Wages set to fall

Municipal employers' umbrella organisation KT publishes pay statistics that show cleaners and technicians at the lower end of their pay scales. KT did not want to comment to Yle on in-work poverty.

Municipal workers' union JHL, on the other hand, was happy to talk. The union's head of negotiations Kristian Karrash said that low pay is especially common in fields dominated by women, such as cleaning, childcare, youth work and catering. Karrasch defines low pay as around 2,000 euros before taxes.

"The pay statistics don’t tell the whole truth about pay in a sector, as in reality it can be smaller than the full-time averages," says Karasch.

Karrasch says that downward pressure on wages is likely to increase in the coming years as public sector employers seek savings in the cleaning and building maintenance sectors. The proposed regional government reform is likely to hasten that process for cleaners up and down the country, he notes.

"We are talking about tens of thousands of people in the public sector," says Karrasch. "It will be clear in the statistics that wages will have fallen over time."

Daniel Böckerman
Daniel Böckerman Image: Jouni Immonen / Yle

Jakonen says that the working poor can often feel like they have failed--and that this is a hidden phenomenon in Finland.

"In-work poverty can cause shame, depression, eating disorders and hunger, for example," says Jakonen. "In families everything is difficult, and for example children can’t do all the hobbies they need to."

"In reality unemployment and poverty rarely stem from individual choices," adds Jakonen.

Better "at work than unemployed"

Daniel Böckerman says he plans to continue in his job despite the low pay. He has been in the field for nearly a decade and is in training for a higher grade position.

He says that in his unit technicians' work is valued.

"I like my job," says Böckerman. "We work together with the hospital and the staff."

Although he has received hand and knee injuries in his work, he says he is mentally strong, adding that’s what's most important.

"I wouldn’t recommend this work to people that couldn’t handle it psychologically," says Böckerman. “My tolerance is high and I have seen and experienced all kinds of things. I’m not surprised by much.”

Before he took this job he had been unemployed for three years, and he does not want to repeat that experience.

"In my opinion working is much better for people psychologically and physically," says Böckerman. "Unemployment benefits are not that good either. I’d rather be at work than unemployed."

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