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"Punishing people for lack of results": One man's fight against new unemployment benefit rules

Martin-Eric Racine wanted to stop a government proposal to cut benefits for unemployed people seen to be insufficiently active, but found himself at the centre of a media storm.

Martin-Eric Racine wanted to stop a government proposal to cut benefits for unemployed people seen to be insufficiently active, but quickly found himself at the centre of a national media storm.

From the turn of the year unemployed people who don't find work or enter training schemes will face a 4.65 percent cut in their benefit payments. It's a big change for Finland's welfare system, and there's been staunch opposition inside parliament and out.

Martin-Eric Racine launched a citizens' initiative aiming to overturn the new rules, and at the time of writing it had gathered some 94,000 signatures, well clear of the 50,000 minimum required for consideration by parliament.

That made him a target of media attention, and he was soon the subject of articles trawling every aspect of his life: his income (around 16,000 euros per year composed of different types of public assistance), efforts to find work (which have been unsuccessful), the nine years he's been unemployed and even the area where he lives.

Work "not voluntary"

"Because the government parties cannot think of anything else to say and to attack me, ad hominem argument is a strongarm in the process and that basically tells me that they have nothing else to say about the proposal and no points left to defend about their own law change as well," Racine told Yle News.

The government, meanwhile, is sticking to its guns. National Coalition Party MP Juhana Vartiainen says that some people have had it too easy for too long.

“There are many people who have been unemployed for a long time and who seem to regard it as a kind of birthright to be unemployed,” Vartiainen said.

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Juhana Vartiainen
National Coalition Party MP Juhana Vartiainen. Image: Marja Väänänen / Yle

"I’m going to be very clear about this. In a welfare state like this, work is not voluntary, you have to work. If you are able-bodied and capable of work and of working age you have to work. It’s not acceptable to live on unemployment benefits year after year. These sentiments that are being expressed cannot be avoided. People have to work," he added.

The issue touches on ideology, economics, regional policy and notions of fairness, and as such threatens to become one of the biggest political issues of 2018.

Punishing joblessness

The government's proposal is that over any three month period unemployed people must perform at least 18 hours of work or enter a work-focused training scheme, or face a 4.65 percent cut in their benefit payments. That equates to a drop of 32.40 euros in the 697 euro basic unemployment payment.

The aim is to get an estimated 8,000 people back into work by making their lives on unemployment benefits less comfortable.

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Martin-Éric Racine
Martin-Éric Racine. Image: Yle

Critics like Racine say the measure punishes people for failing to find work, not failing to try, and as such is unfair. Vartiainen rejected that idea in an interview with Yle News.

"The fact is that work opportunities abound in the economy now," Vartiainen said. "So the requirement to work 18 hours in a 65-day period is not in my opinion unjust or unreasonable. Similar measures and schemes have been implemented in other Nordic countries, notably Denmark, where activation measures have been used for a long time."

According to OECD figures from 2015, Denmark spends double the amount Finland does on labour market activation measures. Critics have pointed out that Finnish government cuts to funding for job-related training schemes could put some unemployed jobseekers at a disadvantage. Vartiainen conceded that the government and municipalities will have to address the situation.

“Well we will have to look into that in this government. If it is the case that in some districts authorities can’t provide these activation measures like training schemes, then we’ll have to see to it that such schemes are implemented everywhere in the country,” the National Coalition MP commented.

"Irrelevant" employment offices

Racine charged that lawmakers like Vartiainen, whose salary as an MP is 6,407 euros per month, are out of touch with the everyday reality of an unemployed person.

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lomake ja kynä
Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

"We already have to do things, have to look for work actively, have to report about our efforts regularly," the Helsinki resident noted. "The only thing this law does is it punishes people for lack of results and that’s completely unfair and unreasonable."

The man behind the drive to repeal the unpopular new rule said the current system of employment office services is not fit for purpose, and needs a radical overhaul.

"They’re not relevant, badly organised, focus on skills that people who’ve had a career already have," Racine complained.

He would like the opportunity to learn Swedish, which is a requirement for many public-sector jobs, and to get a driving license, which he says he can't afford but would greatly improve his employment prospects.

"How many times do you have to go to a CV clinic to get your CV in shape? Some feedback from the initiative has been from people who have over 10 different versions of their CV because the only thing the employment office can think of is to send them to another CV training."

Age-old institutions

Perhaps surprisingly, Vartiainen agreed. He noted that traditional methods of assisting unemployed people have not borne fruit, and with the Sipilä government targeting a 72 percent employment rate (it currently stands at 70.4 percent), something else has to be tried.

"We must see how this is going to work," says Vartiainen. "Of course if this turns out [to be] very unsatisfactory then we must do something else. Still economic research shows that for specific training and other active labour market policy measure the
effect is not very good. They don’t seem to enhance the likelihood of getting employed very much. My assumption is that the [new] measures will have a larger effect in getting unemployed to seek full time jobs."

The MP and the jobseeker do seem to have some common ground in criticising the current system—and they are both keen to reduce unemployment.

"Who is gonna lose in the long term?" Racine queried. "Me of course, but also the taxpayer who keeps on having to pay for my basic subsistence just because the government is stuck in its age-old institutions from the industrial age."

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