Finland faces autumn of discontent with strikes and protests over government’s austerity budget

Finland faces autumn of discontent with strikes and protests over government’s austerity budget

Trade union leaders say the right-wing government is a ‘reverse Robin Hood’ administration: cutting benefits to the poor, but rewarding the rich with tax breaks.

Finland’s right-wing government is facing an autumn of discontent as trade unions and students put pressure on it over cuts to social welfare, the erosion of employment rights and job security, and new restrictions on international students who want to stay in the Nordic nation.

Trade union leaders have branded Prime Minister Petteri Orpo’s government a ‘reverse Robin Hood administration’ slashing benefits for the poor while rewarding the rich with tax cuts.

The most visible recent protests began with students occupying Helsinki University, a movement now entering its third week for which a thousand university staff members have signed a letter of support. Organisers say the movement has “spread like wildfire” to every other major university in the country.

“We support the students’ views, and the University leadership understands the occupiers’ concerns about the livelihood of students,” says Vice-Rector Kai Nordlund in a statement.

Students say they’ve endured enough cuts, and a line must be drawn. 

“During the last decade the welfare support that Finnish students receive has been constantly cut, and this government is continuing that, worsening the situation for students and forcing us to take on more debt in order to study which means when we graduate we have a huge amount of debt to pay off,” says Havu Laakso, one of the  students occupying Helsinki University.

Laakso and their compatriots start the week with a boost to morale after a standoff with authorities, which ordered them out before Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö was due to speak at a recent event in the building. At the eleventh hour the university capitulated and the students, whose ranks had swelled with the prospect of forced eviction, managed to make plenty of noise during Niinistö’s speech.

“This current government also wants to increase tuition fees and tighten immigration policy making it so that international students only have three months to find a job once they graduate, or they get kicked out,” Laakso tells Euronews.

Experts have been baffled as to why the current government would cut housing allowances, while at the same time needs to attract thousands of foreign workers to fill traditionally low-paid jobs like nursing and elderly care – workers who rely on exactly these sorts of benefits to make ends meet; and also why there would be such a tight timeline imposed on international graduates whose skills are needed if Finland wants to be one of Europe’s most innovative and tech-lead economies. 

Politicians weigh in on the protest action

Over the weekend one politician from the ruling National Coalition Party ratcheted up the rhetoric by framing the students as ‘left-wing invaders’ who were unreasonably demanding more grants and allowances from the state; while opposition politicians from the Social Democrats questioned why members of parliament were willing to make welfare cuts, but not willing to go to the protest and explain why they were doing it, face-to-face.

Sandra Bergqvist, Finland’s Minister for Youth, tells Euronews she understands why the students are concerned: “When your wallet shrinks, you react.” 

“The right to demonstrate is fundamental to the Finnish society. However, we must keep in mind that enrolling in higher education is free for Finns, in comparison with countries where already tuition fees might be significant,” she says.

Bergqvist, from the Swedish People’s Party, points out that the government currently provides students with an education grant, housing benefits, subsidised meals and a student loan guarantee scheme.

“But in this demanding economical situation where the goverment’s finances need to be adjusted, a larger part of the financial support to students will be loan-based,” the minister adds.

What would Jesus do? Finland’s churches get involved

Meanwhile a Helsinki parish church described it as “ungodly” to cut money from already low-income and disadvantaged people, and the official Turku Cathedral social media accounts posted a similar message of support, saying “caring for your loved ones is part of the Christian faith, regardless of party affiliation.” 

The ‘occupy education’ strikes have even spread to some Finnish high schools, first in the capital region and now several other cities, as the union representing high school students encourages its teenage members to speak up.

“There are a lot of protests taking place everywhere around the country, and I think the government will have to pay attention, but I’m not too hopeful they will change,” the union’s chairperson Ella Siltanen tells Euronews.

Government’s attempts at labour market reform

Alongside cuts to student benefits and tighter immigration measures, the government is also proposing some of the widest reforms to the labour market in decades, and while experts agree that Finland’s social security system and labour market regulations are ripe for overhaul, Finns are reluctant to embrace wholesale change.

A previous attempt at sweeping reforms in the early 1990s fell by the wayside after unions threatened a nationwide general strike; and more recently, the introduction of a so-called ‘activation model’ to get people off benefits and into employment introduced by PM Juha Sipilä’s government in 2018 was met with widespread protests, as it essentially punished unemployed jobseekers who couldn’t find work. 

The deeply unpopular activation model was largely rolled back by the next, left-wing, government after it was revealed more than 90,000 people had their benefits cut.

Unions launch three weeks of targeted strike action

The current government swept into office on a promise to limit government borrowing, and rein in what they viewed as the ‘profligate’ spending of the Sanna Marin administration.

But they’ve already blown through their own €10 billion borrowing limit, and are now acquiring debt at the same rate as Marin’s government, putting to rest any lingering notion that the fiscally conservative National Coalition Party is somehow naturally better at handling the economy than its left-wing counterpart the Social Democrats.

“I think we have to go back to the 1990s before we had this kind of government,” explains Jarkko Eloranta, the President of the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions SAK.

“This is not an austerity budget the government has introduced, because they are giving tax relief for the most wealthy, like lowering taxes for people earning more than €80,000 per year,” he tells Euronews.

“This is a reverse Robin Hood government, it takes from the poor and gives to the rich so in that sense it is only an austerity budget for low-income people.”

As part of the wider protests, Eloranta’s SAK has announced three weeks of targeted strike action in different sectors, and in different parts of the country. The union is flexing its muscle, hoping to give the government a taste of what could happen if they don’t walk back some of the policies that unions find problematic.

“Of course we have other plans ahead if the situation continues, and I am quite sure the government is not shaken or backing down due to our current activities,” says Eloranta, hinting at the possible escalation of strike action. 

Finnish media reports that Minister of Finance Riikka Purra, leader of the far-right Finns Party, has refused to meet with senior trade union leaders since taking office in June. 

“The government says they are listening but there’s no real discussions, no real negotiations, they are just implementing their own policies,” says Eloranta.

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