25,000 health care workers from six hospital districts represented by the Finnish Union of Practical Nurses (SuPer) and the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals (TEHY) are all set to go on strike starting on April 1. Unions are demanding immediate staff recruitments to solve an acute staff shortage in the social and healthcare services (Sote) sector, and a 3.6% increase on top of the annual pay raise over the next five years. On March 30, A national mediator presented a proposed settlement but it was rejected by unions who declared that the settlement did not address workers’ primary concern of staffing shortages. If the union’s demands are not met after two weeks of striking, 15,000 more health workers from other seven hospital districts also will join the strike.
According to Finnish public sector trade unions such as the Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors (JHL) and Confederation of Skilled Workers in the Public Sector (JUKO), and others, workers are dissatisfied with wages and working conditions. Along with the workers in the social and health care sectors, welfare and education workers have also been planning to take industrial action. As Perttu Mukkala of JUKO stated, “It is often mentioned how important public sector work, for example in the social welfare sector, is. However, this is not really reflected anywhere. The appreciation should also be evident in our pay slips.”
Finland used to have a decentralized, publicly funded healthcare system. As per the social and healthcare reforms approved by the Finnish parliament last year, the responsibility for organizing and supplying social and health care services will pass from Finland’s 293 municipalities to 21 regional authorities plus the city of Helsinki by the beginning of 2023.
Meanwhile, according to unions SuPer and TEHY, over 30,000 healthcare workers are expected to retire in the next few years, which will put severe strain on the sector unless urgent recruitments are made. The unions have announced that the first round of striking will cover the hospital districts of North Ostrobothnia, Pohjois-Savo (excluding Kysteri), Southwest Finland, Pirkanmaa Hospital District, Helsinki and Uusimaa, Central Finland (excluding the Central Finland Regional Health Center). In the days leading up to the industrial action, the hashtag #Lakko or #Strike has been shared widely by health workers and the unions.
“We have called for an emergency program in the health and social services sector, which would increase the salaries of health and social services personnel by 3.6 per cent annually for five years in addition to the usual contract increases. The National Conciliator has been settling the labor dispute for three weeks, but no significant progress has been made in mediation. The state must be responsible for financing the rescue program,” added the unions.
Mervi Grönfors, vice-president of the Communist Party of Finland (SKP) and a trade unionist from TEHY stated that “the demand for wage increases by low-paid public sector workers is justified. The wage level in the sector is disproportionately low due to the ever-increasing cost of living. The fact that negotiations are taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine must not be an obstacle to getting out of the pay hole in the sector.”
“According to the index of wage and salary earnings, the wage gap between women and men is 16% in the labor market as a whole. Although wage discrimination became illegal as early as the 1970s, differences between women’s and men’s pay still haunt the labor market tables. This has not even been rectified by the fact that the requirement for equal pay between women and men is enshrined in the Equality Act,” she added.
Earlier on March 11, the Left Alliance, a coalition partner in the incumbent Sanna Marin-led government in Finland, had also expressed solidarity with the nurses’ cause. “In Finland there is a worsening workforce crisis in the social and health care sector. More and more professionals are getting tired and leaving the field because they have to work too hard in a hurry, and the demands of the work and the salary do not meet. The situation is alarming and concerns all of us: if we don’t have enough nurses, people won’t get the care they need, stated the Left Alliance.”