Helsinki (29.01.2001 - Juhani Artto) Several recent studies, opinion polls and updated statistics indicate that Finnish working life is changing in a paradoxical manner.

The good news is that employment has risen and there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of those out of work. At the end of December, according to Statistics Finland, there were 33,000 more people at work than a year earlier. The employment rate is edging closer to the 70 per cent target of Prime Minister Lipponen's cabinet and now stands at 66.4 per cent, compared with 65.6 per cent one year ago. Over the same period the number of those unemployed dropped from 229,000 to 210,000*.

These tendencies are consistent with the top priority of the SAK rank and file. According to a recently published opinion poll, the rank and file members of SAK affiliated unions regard employment and job security as the most important trade union issues. A decade ago in 1990 it was pay levels that scored highest.

This year the employment figures are expected to improve still further, with the economy forecast to grow by at least four per cent. This sustained growth shows no significant signs of slowing down and strong economic performance has continued for seven consecutive years. The pay rises agreed for this year, together with tax cuts, will also mean a clear increase in real incomes for most of the population in Finland.

The growth of optimism is held in check mainly by the heavy trade dependence of the Finnish economy. Problems in the other EU Member States or in the USA would quickly be felt in Finland.

Another factor is emphasised primarily by the employers: the growing shortage of skilled labour in Information Technology and some other industries. The debate on increased imports of labour has become a daily one. According to a recent study, SAK shop stewards are encouraging enterprises that complain of labour shortages to look in the mirror: in many cases these very enterprises pursue staffing policies that makes them unattractive to new recruits or they have imposed a moratorium on hiring new permanent employees.

Rapid increase in temporary jobs

Two separate studies reveal an alarmingly rapid increase in temporary and other irregular forms of employment alongside the growing economy and improved employment statistics. In the industries organised by SAK unions, accounting for almost half of Finnish employees, 35 per cent of women and one fifth of men are in irregular forms of employment. The situation five years ago was that out of more than one million members of SAK affiliated unions, only 14 per cent worked in temporary, part-time or other irregular forms of employment. These figures are based on data gathered one year ago from a sample of almost 10,000 rank and file members of SAK unions.

Temporary jobs are more common in the public than in the private sector. More women than men have temporary jobs. The industries with the highest proportions of temporary employees are the social and health services and the construction industry. Employees with higher education are more likely to be in temporary employment.

One clear indicator of the enthusiasm of employers for hiring temporary staff is that such employees have, on average, had such a status for as long as three years.

According to the latest Ministry of Labour "barometer of working conditions", last year 36 per cent of the new recruits in the services sector were in permanent employment, while 27 per cent had temporary jobs and 16 per cent were working part-time. The ministry, however, concludes that the upward trend in irregular forms of employment came to an end last year. SAK concurs with this view.

The Statistics Finland survey, based on the 1997 situation, shows that 85 per cent of those in temporary employment would prefer a permanent job. Besides insecurity, the main concern of temporary employees is poor career advancement prospects. Another survey also suggests that temporary employees have a higher accident risk than those in permanent jobs. However, 37 per cent of temporary employees are reported to be satisfied with their work. The corresponding figure for permanent employees is lower at 29 per cent.

In a Statistics Finland survey from 1999 permanent employees scored higher than temporary employees in work-related illnesses and their symptoms. This survey suggested that the longer the work relation lasts, the more sick employees become.

Erkki Laukkanen, the author of the major SAK study, concludes that in terms of quality working life has deteriorated. Almost two out of three rank and file members of SAK affiliated unions feel that their employers place efficiency above all other values. In-service vocational training has decreased and only one third of the respondents believe that workplace managers respect their subordinates. However, co-operation within undertakings has improved since spring 1994. Such co-operation was undermined during the recession of the early 1990s.

A further negative development has occurred in the degree to which employees feel that they can influence their own work. Fewer than half felt able to influence the content, division, organisation and pace of their work to an appreciable degree.

*These figures are based on calculation methods recommended by the International Labour Organisation – ILO and used by Eurostat. The Ministry of Labour publishes much higher figures every month reckoned by other means.