(05.03.2000 - Juhani Artto) Many trade union activists and leaders around the world have heard about, or know what SASK is. SASK is the Finnish language abbreviation of the Trade Union Solidarity Centre of Finland.

What is the role of this organisation in Finland and globally?

"The international trade union movement coordinates work to increase expertise, improve networking and raise the organising rate of trade unions in the developing countries", explains SASK Director Hannu Ohvo. "SASK is the tool, or service centre, of the Finnish trade union movement in this endeavour."

"What we have here is a kind of global trade union early warning system", he defines. By the networking which SASK supports Ohvo refers both to South-South and North-South connections. SASK's closest partners in the affluent countries of the North are in the other Nordic countries and the Netherlands.

The member organisations of SASK include Finland's largest central trade union organisation SAK and all of its 26 affiliated unions. Three unions in the confederation of salaried employees - STTK have recently joined SASK. It has also lately become possible for local union branches and individuals to join SASK as supporting members. Already over 100 branches have joint.

Globalisation pushes a two-track strategy

In the 1990s the Finnish trade unions embraced the idea that co-operation with, and assistance to, third world unions is not only a matter of solidarity. With the growing internationalisation of the business world, North-South cooperation has also become an essential element of any strategy for protecting the rights of workers in Finland.

"Working life conditions in Finland are in fairly good shape compared with those of the developing countries. Communication between labour and the management is regular, unlike the situation in most parts of the world. The organising rate is high and collective agreements cover almost all wage and salary earners."

"In this situation it is our special responsibility to monitor closely how Finnish multinationals such as the Nokia Group behave in other countries. We want to ensure that they do not behave differently in other countries."

"This was our motivation in 1998 when we helped the Indonesian trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan (SBSI) to secure a long and fruitful discussion with Juha Niemelä, the CEO of the forest industry giant UPM-Kymmene, which at that time was cooperating closely with the Indonesian enterprise April."

Projects - the main form of action

SASK works chiefly through projects seeking to strengthen trade unions in the developing countries. One og the in the projects is union education.

This year SASK is co-financing 14 projects in Africa, 14 in Latin America, 9 in Asia, 10 in Europe. One global project focusing on gender equality. SASK also provides assistance for union development close to its borders in Russia and the Baltic countries. Six of this year's projects are new.

In the twelve years of SASK's existence clearly unsuccessful projects have been rare exceptions, Ohvo notes.

"In the last few years we have paid growing attention to qualitative goals."

"We have learnt the importance of already involving our southern partners in the projects at the planning stage."

"A large part of the projects nowadays are implemented through the trade secretariats, which have staff specialised in union education. This has led to a qualitative improvement in the projects and the strengthening of the international trade union movement."

"When measured by organising rate and the coverage of collective agreements, however, our development work does not look so good. The international trade union movement still has a long way to go", Ohvo emphasises.

The basic norms of working life, human rights and gender equality issues are present in almost all projects. The human rights focus is one of the basic elements in SASK's work.

An increasing number of projects have a regional coverage. In earlier years they were mainly bilateral. Now the average project is more extensive than before.

South Africa, Dominican Republic ...

For SASK the South African union movement's strong role in the struggle against apartheid already constitutes a classic example of successful co-operation. Together with their Nordic and Dutch counterparts, the Finnish trade unions were among the main supporters of the South African unions.

Another important demonstration of this positive impact is developing in the Dominican Republic, where SASK has helped to promote trade union unity.

In Haiti SASK is supporting a literacy campaign combined with union education. The campaign has led to encouraging results.

Altogether SASK is co-financing projects in dozens of countries.

Government support

SASK is one of Finland's largest non-governmental organisations in the development field. This has been recognised by the government, which provides financial aid to SASK within a framework agreement covering three years. Only the Red Cross, the Finnish Church Aid and three missionary organisations with long histories of development work have a similar status.

SASK has a special role among the development NGOs. It is the only organisation which works together with trade unions anf fights for human rights at workplaces in the developing countries.

This year SASK will invest more than FIM 10 million (EUR 1.7 million; USD 1.7 million) in its work. About 80 per cent of this comes from the Finnish government while the remainder is from the trade union organisations.

While the member organisations of SASK would like to increase SASK's cooperation in the nearby regions of Russia and the Baltic countries, there are financial restrictions. The Finnish government channels only a small part of its aid to neighbouring regions through the NGOs.