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Trade Union News from Finland

A new study:
How agency labour became accepted practice

Helsinki (28.04.2013 - Heikki Jokinen) The hiring of temporary labour (agency labour) gained acceptance and a sense of legitimacy back in the 1990’s when Finland was going through a period of severe recession. This form of employment, which had shown a marked increase at that point, was seen in the media first and foremost as a solution to the problem of high unemployment.

Changes in legislation passed at that time also reflected changes in attitudes towards this type of employment arrangement. At the same time temporary labour was understood as something that only affected "marginal groups" like women and students, thus posing no danger to the traditional often male-dominated work places.

These are the main findings of the doctoral thesis Keskusteluja vuokratyöstä (Discussions on hired temporary labour) by Liisa Lähteenmäki. Her thesis won approval at the University of Turku at the beginning of this year.

Lähteenmäki monitored how public discourse on temporary work agencies changed from the beginning of 1990's until 2005. She analysed the news from the Finnish national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and the minutes of parliament as well as the minutes and reports of parliament’s Employment and Equality Committee.

In 1985 the number of people working for temporary employment agencies was growing and special legislation was passed. This law focused on fair conditions and was seen as a tool to prevent the existing exploitation of the hired workers. The general idea was that hired labour should be used only for hiring substitutes and in peak seasons. Public debate supported this goal.

Exploiters or benefactors?

Then Finland experienced a serious depression at the beginning of the 1990's and suddenly the tone of the debate changed. Temporary work agencies were often seen as a viable way of being employed and the exploiters came to be seen as benefactors almost. A new law in 1994 deregulated this branch.

Mass unemployment was one factor for temporary employment becoming accepted, says Liisa Lähteenmäki in an interview with Intiim, the magazine of the Industrial Union TEAM. "Another important reason was that at first it only affected predominantly female branches. The idea was that it would remain there."

Until the year 2000, public discourse viewed temporary work agencies in a very positive light. These were no longer considered as shady, speculation type enterprises but as reputable businesses. The media also sought to portray agency work as a good way to fit together work and family life. Whereas the experts interviewed in media up until 1995 were mainly trade unionists, now employers and work agencies took to the floor.

The employment act was amended in 2001 stipulating e.g. that collective agreements must be applied to hired labour. In some branches agency workers got their own collective agreements. This created a general belief that all problems can be solved and gave substance to the notion that hired labour is something normal.

In the abstract of her thesis Liisa Lähteenmäki sums up by saying that the employer-dominated discussion of temporary labour is nowadays creating "an entrepreneurial person, who is seen as the managing director of his or her own life, as the image of the ideal employee". This supports the general idea of shifting responsibility from employers to employees.

The employers’ rhetoric at the beginning of 2000s portrayed hired labour as a catalyst to the labour market that provides freedom and diverse employment experiences. "In this semantic context, temporary labour is merely one means of gaining employment and finding one’s way into the labour market, instead of an obligatory arrangement imposed by employers", Lähteenmäki writes.

In the interview with Ahjo, the magazine of Metalworkers' Union, she criticises trade unions for being slow to recognise the problems in the status of agency labour. Recently, unions have become more active, and one reason behind it has been the increase of foreign agency labour at work places, Lähteenmäki concludes. Unions have noticed that employers often prefer agency labour to temporary employment relations as it is easier to get rid of agency labour than employees in temporary employment relations.  

In the interview with Ahjo, the magazine of the Metalworkers' Union, she criticises trade unions for being slow to recognise the problems pertaining to the status of agency labour. Recently, unions have become more active, and one reason for this has been the increase of foreign agency labour at work places, Lähteenmäki concludes. Unions have noticed that employers often prefer agency labour to temporary employment relations, as it is easier to dispense with agency labour than it is with employees in temporary employment relations.

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