Helsinki (02.09.1999 - Juhani Artto) In 1987 about 11 per cent of wage and salary earners in Finland were in temporary jobs. By last year this figure had already reached 17.5 per cent (women 20.6 %, men 14.6 %).

An amendment to the Employment Contracts Act took effect in February 1997 which in practise legalised the common manner, particularly among service sector employers, of concatenating fixed term jobs. This means that employers may legally employ the same worker again and again in fixed term jobs.

According to a study made in 1997-1998, almost a third of temporary workers (32 %) were substituting for employees on maternity leave or absent for other reasons. In 29 per cent of cases the nature of the work made it reasonable - from the employers' point of view - to engage a temporary worker. This is a practicality when producing goods and services for which demand fluctuates greatly. In 23 per cent of cases the reasons were so vague that even the employees concerned did not know the employers' motivation.

The system, however, creates problems for workers because temporary jobs can be concatenated for vague and debatable reasons, says researcher Jyrki Laaksonen, commissioned as a project leader by the Ministry of Labour.

Almost half of the temporary employees found no advantages in such employment compared with permanent jobs. Only three per cent were completely satisfied on having a fixed term job.

Laaksonen proposes that an employer should be obliged to employ permanently any worker who has served 13 months in fixed term jobs. A further proposal is that all individual employment contracts should be made in writing. Laaksonen demands a law on minimum working hours which would guarantee to all employees an income sufficient for a decent living without assistance from social programmes.

"An enterprise culture which favours temporary jobs, few hours for part-timers and stand-by employment exploits the public social programmes to make enterprises financially more effective", Laaksonen comments in his interview in the leading Finnish daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

In the 1990s a new type of fixed-term jobs - so called zero-jobs - have been invented. These are agreements which define weekly working hours as anything between zero and 37.5.

Kirsti Palanko-Laaka, a senior lawyer at Finland's largest central trade union organisation SAK is highly critical of this behaviour: "Zero-job workers have no guarantee of working hours. All the risks have to be borne by the employees. When mandatory shift lists are not compiled, as happens every now and then, the workers lose sick pay and other benefits enjoyed by the permanently employed",

Zero-jobs are common practise, especially in the hotel and catering trade and elsewhere in the service sector. The electronics and a few other industries also use them.

For employers, zero-job workers are cheaper than outsourcing.

The legality of these zero-jobs is doubtful. The issue is on the agenda of the Employment Contracts Act committee and there are also lawsuits pending. Palanko-Laaka simply describes zero-jobs as immoral and at variance with the spirit of Finnish legislation.

Last February another step backwards was taken in labour relations when the District Court of Turku found for the employer in a dispute over the rights of outsourced workers. The judgement left such workers, providing services in large hotels, without several social benefits guaranteed in the industry's national collective agreement.

Four employees were left without holiday return bonus, sick pay after seven days of illness, the right to paid leave to care for a sick child and the four days of adjusted working hours leave enjoyed by most salary and wage earners.

The Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union has referred the case to the Court of Appeal. Experts believe that as the matter has major precedent value, it is probable that it will be decided finally in the Supreme Court.