Helsinki (21.12.2001 - Juhani Artto) Finland's new Employment Contracts Act (no. 55 of 2001) took effect on 1 June 2001. The last bone of contention in the long process of drafting the law concerned the general applicability of collective agreements. The trade union movement lobbied strongly on this point and secured an acceptable formulation. The country's conservative Coalition Party, on the other hand, sought to weaken the regulations on this point, which is perceived by employee organisations as one of the utmost importance.

This dispute has not yet been fully resolved, however, as application of the Act is more than a mere technicality. Although collective bargaining is very much the norm in Finland, there remain some industries, trades and professions in which it has not yet taken root. This means that the independent organ appointed to decide on the general applicability of collective agreements is currently under considerable scrutiny. This organ has so far authorised 17 collective agreements as generally binding, while two were rejected. There are about 200 national collective agreements and the organ must consider all of them by October 2002.

"The rejections were made on incorrect principles", says the legal expert Jorma Rusanen of Finland's largest central trade union confederation SAK, and he insists: "the committee only considered the first criterion, concerning the number of employees of organised employers in the industry concerned. The other criterion, concerning an established pattern of collective bargaining and the organising rate of employees, should also be given significance."

The first criterion is that whenever about half of the employees in a certain industry, trade or profession work for organised employers the respective collective agreement should have generally applicable status outright. Since not only employees but also employers in Finland have a high organising rate, most collective agreements easily fall into the generally applicable category by this criterion.

However, collective bargaining structures in the new industries such as information technology have yet to become established. There are also problems in the case of senior salaried employees. These workers have come into conflict with employers who are unwilling to enter into collective agreements with the union organisations of senior salaried employees.

In some cases it is difficult to secure an effective count of the number of employees working in an industry covered by a collective agreement. Such a figure is necessary for applying the approximate "half of the employees" criterion used to determine general applicability. The figure ought to be available, but often is not. In its labour statistics the Statistics Finland organisation uses other criteria.