Helsinki (01.12.2000 - Juhani Artto) The trade union movement is demanding reduced working hours in the newly opened round of collective bargaining. Aside from this, the road transport sector has special problems in working hours. All recent studies demonstrate that the working hours of professional drivers in Finland, as in other countries, far exceed healthy limits. This poses risks both to the drivers' health and to road safety.

According to a 1999 inquiry by the Finnish Transport Workers Union – AKT, almost 20 per cent of lorry drivers regularly work more than 60 hours per week, and a few even exceed 80 hours.

A thesis by Helinä Häkkänen, published last Spring, provides strong evidence of the risks caused by long working hours. About 20 per cent of professional drivers admit that they "nod off" every now and then when driving. Over a period of three months half had experienced "near-accident" situations.

The study by the Ministry of Transport and Communications reports that 75 per cent of owner drivers exceed the legal 48-hour limit. One Finnish peculiarity is the large proportion of owner drivers. More than half of all road transport companies own no more than one lorry, and most of the 30,000 vehicle fleet belongs to companies with only one or two lorries.

This peculiarity is the main reason why the Finnish government has insisted on excluding owner drivers from the working time Directive currently being negotated in Brussels. Two years ago the Comission proposed a 48-hour restriction covering both drivers and owner drivers.

The Finnish Transport Workers Union – AKT is demanding that owner drivers be included in the Directive, arguing that health and safety factors do not depend on the industry's ownership structure.

Finnish Transport Minister Olli-Pekka Heinonen has also argued for the exclusion of owner drivers by alluding to competition from Russian transport companies., Both in statutes and especially in practise, Russian working hour restrictions are far from even the dangerously liberal Western European standards.

Finland has not been the only country at the European Transport Council to hesitate at including owner drivers in the coming working time Directive. More or less similar standpoints have been presented by Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Greece and Portugal.

Countries with more concentrated ownership structures in the transport sector are more in favour of placing the drivers and owner drivers in an equal position.

More fuel was added to the Finnish working hours debate at the end of August by an extensive study made by the health and safety authorities. Inspections made in 1,100 enterprises between January and June 2000 exposed breaches of working hour rules in almost one third of companies. While road transport proved to be the worst sector – as expected, what surprised even the experts was the extent of this form of law-breaking. Many companies fail even to keep records of working hours under the 1996 law. These distressing results are partly explained by the emphasis given in the work of the inspectorate to unorganised employers.