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"Humiliating, embarrassing and stressful": Finland's unemployed berate govt's activation model

The biggest problem with the measure is that unemployed jobseekers lose their benefits regardless of their best efforts to find work, many jobless people say.

Aktiivimallin vastainen mielensoitus eduskunnan portailla.
Demonstrators flocked to the Parliament to protest government's controversial activation model in March this year. Image: Jarno Kuusinen / AOP

The government’s activation model to get unemployed jobseekers into paid employment has not lived up to its name, according to a poll of 6,000 members of the trade union confederation SAK and its member organisation, the Industrial Union.

Survey respondents said that rather than "activate" the unemployed to find work, the programme represents a de facto reduction of unemployment benefit payments.

Introduced at the beginning of the year under a cloud of controversy, the activation model requires unemployed jobseekers to either embark on entrepreneurship, work for at least 18 hours or sign-up for "employment promoting" activities such as training, during a three-month review period or face a benefits sanction.

Fewer than one in three SAK members said that they had been able to meet the criteria for maintaining the benefits during the past year, while just one-fifth said they had been able to meet the conditions during at least one three-month review period. Moreover, more than one in four said they had never been able to avoid a benefits cut.

Additionally, one-third of respondents who met the criteria for preserving their benefits said they had been able to work for the required number of hours, while another third had participated in training or some other kind of employment promoting activity. Just one percent said they had turned to entrepreneurship.

Model marginalises small town dwellers, middle-aged

Poll participants said the biggest reason for not satisfying the criteria was difficulty finding work. Either they could not find suitable employment or they simply did not get the jobs for which they applied. The second-most-common reason for failing was the lack of employment services and other factors such as place of residence and age.

Respondents living in northern Finland in particular, as well as unemployed persons in small, sparsely-populated areas and in the countryside found it hard to meet the model’s requirements. Over-55s also struggled to keep up with the new system, said SAK unemployment development project manager Saana Siekkinen.

"They see the activation model as no more than a reduction of unemployment benefits because it is difficult for them to find work or to get [employment] services at the moment. They have said directly that they do not get services and have been marginalised," Siekkinen added.

The survey found that people’s ability to stay on the right side of the model depended on where they live in Finland, in terms of finding jobs or accessing employment services. SAK said that it had warned the government about this prospect as the model was coming into force at the beginning of the year.

"There were vast differences between small towns and large cities in the survey. It is a major cause of concern [for us] what happens to people who are unemployed outside of the major growth centres. They have an urgent need for services," she noted.

The analysis revealed that less educated members who had only completed primary education or attended folk or middle school were more likely to have their benefits cut than their peers with higher education qualifications.

Employment offices largely ineffectual

Even among jobseekers who had access to the services of local employment offices, just seven percent said they were able to find work via this route. This in spite of the fact that the government invested heavily in beefing up the service when the model came online.

The majority of union members who were able to find jobs said that they did so on their own, either by leveraging their networks or getting help from friends and acquaintances. In other cases they were either offered jobs directly or were re-hired by a previous employer.

"Employment officers don’t seem to have offered much more than general training in creating a CV at first. On the other hand, respondents would be happy to have tailor-made courses that can help them find work in the future, spruce up their professional skills or provide skills for working life. But no one seems to have found work through the employment offices (TE-toimistot)," said Anu-Hanna Anttila, research chief with the Industrial Union.

Few prospects for full-time work

The model does not seem to have helped unemployed jobseekers find permanent employment either.

"At least not full-time work. Of the 2,700 Industrial Union respondents, only a few said that they had secured permanent job, and some are doing permanent part time or seasonal work," Anttila continued.

She noted that short-term and part-time contracts mostly fell into the category of precarious gig work.

Call to axe activation model

Other SAK union members described the activation model as opaque. One in ten said that it was unclear to them whether or not they had met the criteria for preserving their level of benefits. Meanwhile just under one-third had no idea how many review periods they had been evaluated for during the year. According to SAK’s Siekkinen the model has further complicated the unemployment benefits system.

Respondents said that the most urgent problem that needs to be addressed with the activation model is the fact that unemployed people suffer benefits cuts simply because they fail to find work, and in spite of their best efforts to do so.

Government has assembled a tri-partite working group to look at the model’s criteria, including a proposal to consider an individual’s independent efforts to land employment.

However the Industrial Union’s Anu-Hanna Anttila said that finessing the current model will not work. She had called for the system to be axed altogether to create room for something new.

Meanwhile SAK has proposed a system in which every unemployed person would receive a personal employment plan that lays out clear steps to take in a specific time period, such as training or using other employment services.

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