(08.10.2000 - Daryl Taylor**) It has been observed that Finland is the Promised Land of associations. If you put twelve Finns in a church boat and tell them to row from Lahti to Jyväskylä, they will quickly form at least three associations: those favouring a route near to the eastern shore of the lake, those preferring the western shore, and those insisting that the best policy is to row straight down the middle. They will then select representatives to negotiate a settlement respecting one fundamental fact: everyone must row with maximum enthusiasm and in the same direction.
This story at least partly explains why the level of trade union membership in Finland is so extraordinarily high. Some 85 per cent of all employees belong to a trade union and in some occupations the organising rate is very nearly 100 per cent. Irrespective of individual political and other conviction, very many Finns feel that joining a union is the natural and obvious thing to do.
The logic of the trade union movement is a simple one and is the same everywhere. The main role of a union is to defend the interests of the employee, who is the weaker party in an employment contract. For most employees the labour market is generally a buyer's market.
Except in highly specialised occupations, employers have an almost unfettered right and opportunity to choose the employees who get hired and to define the scope of their duties at work. It is only through mutual cooperation and solidarity that employees can begin to compensate for this natural advantage of the employer. By negotiating collectively with the employer, workers can meet their employers on a more equal footing.
If the position of the individual ordinary worker is a weak one, then the situation of the newly arrived foreign worker is the weakest of all. Inadequate linguistic and cultural skills, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the legal and administrative system of a new country, leave the migrant worker extremely vulnerable to varying degrees of abuse. This disadvantaged situation may be further exacerbated by work permit policies restricting the foreigner's rights to change employer and seriously compromising the concept of freedom of contract in employment. Even after such policies have been abandoned by more enlightened administrations, foreigners remain easily misled into believing that a powerful employer can get them deported. As foreign workers are the most disadvantaged, they also have the most to gain from trade union membership.
The union to which I belong is a classic example of this. Private sector foreign language teaching for adults is a small industry, which has always employed many foreigners. These immigrants teach their native language and native cultural responses to representatives of the business community and public administration, thereby enabling their students to communicate more effectively in an international context.
In 1984 a small group of language teachers working in Finland became dimly aware that they were getting a poor deal. These teachers were eventually accepted into the Union of Technical and Special Trades, which immediately began to clear up many of the worst abuses occurring in the private sector foreign language teaching industry. Over the first two years of organisation several employers in the industry were taught a sharp lesson in the legal and other consequences of their abusive practices. More importantly, the foreign teachers learned that they had definite, enforceable rights at work. They became more assertive in insisting on respect for these rights and they thereby regained their self-respect. This last factor is an extremely important one in determining how effectively an immigrant integrates into a new cultural environment.
In 1986 the teachers negotiated collectively with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and secured an important technical concession on the conditions for obtaining unemployment benefit. In 1988 they became an autonomous section within their union and began to campaign in a more determined manner for improvements in Finland's work permit and other public policies affecting their situation. Several proposals initially proposed and supported by the teachers have found their way into the law and into public administrative practices.
The teachers' section has also broadened its scope to include other employees who depend on advanced or native competence in a foreign language. This process looks set to continue, as the small Union of Technical and Special Trades is merging with three other unions to form a new 200,000 -strong service sector trade union. Foreign members of the new union will then be able to benefit from the experience and expertise of the teachers' section.
At their best, Finnish trade unions provide the closest thing to comprehensive insurance against the hazards of working life. The collective lobbying power of the trade union movement is the main reason why Finland has an extraordinarily detailed body of employment law designed to encourage good employment practices. Naturally almost all of the country's leading specialised practitioners in this branch of the law work either for the unions or for their counterpart employers' federations. Their services are available at no extra charge to union members with actionable grievances at work. In more law-abiding industries, the unions provide effective networking services so that their members know what is happening in their sector. Where immigrants are concerned, there is at least the potential to provide reliable and authoritative information so that foreigners no longer need to rely on the self-serving advice of their employers or on misleading and inaccurate immigrant folklore.
Trade union membership is therefore an intelligent option for immigrants, but it should not be regarded as a panacea for all problems. The experience of the teachers' section has shown that it is also important for immigrants to be active and assertive within their unions. Without an assertive internal organisation to help them, passive immigrant members can encounter problems in persuading the union to address their legitimate concerns. Often this is the result of a linguistic or cultural barrier, but in some cases the failure of a union to defend its foreign members has left the union open to justifiable suspicion of institutionalised racism.
Finnish trade unions can also be frustratingly conservative and may resist the kind of structural and policy changes which help immigrants to organise effectively within the union (keeping them isolated in separate sections, for example). It is vital to campaign against this and establish networks within the union. As in any collective endeavour, the rewards available depend on the effort invested. Some things are clear, however: active immigrant union members should have little difficulty in encouraging their fellow immigrants to join the union, to identify their collective concerns and to find representatives who can present these concerns effectively to the union as a whole. Most importantly, the entire process of immigrant trade union organisation is a liberating experience for those involved and for the immigrant communities as a whole.
* Originally published at MoniTori Plus 2000, the international supplement to the magazine MoniTori, published by Ministry of Labour, Migration Division
**Daryl Taylor is Vice-chairperson of the language teachers' section of the Union of Technical and Special Trades and was its chairperson from 1988 to 1996. He is also a member of the union's Executive Board and Vice-chair of the Advisory Board for Ethnic Relations ETNO.