Monday 8/10/20

Job precariousness in the happiest country of the world

Charles Chaplin in his movie 'Modern Times' (1936). Image: Public Domain.
Charles Chaplin in his movie 'Modern Times' (1936). Image: Public Domain.

Last May 2018, the EU parliament agreed on directives related with employment practices. That decision leaned on the need of tackling the practice of precarious work conditions, as the Zero-hour contracts and short-term contracts.

In Portugal, my home country, the concept of Zero-hour contracts doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, in the mid-2010s there was an increase of so-called freelancers. And this is still a reality, even though the way the song is being played nowadays changed an octave up.

This scenario started due to a falsely supported excuse of a country under an economic recession and instability. A place where majority of the small and mid-size company employers (startups included) and even the Portuguese Government, started to ‘hire’ freelancers for short, mid and long-term positions. From doctors, teachers, office clerks, cooks, seasonal farmer helpers… almost all sectors were exposed to this shift in employment laws, rights, duties and security. Basic rights obtained through time and effort since May 68 being stealthy swiped under the carpet.

A brief description of this system is: no official relationship with the companies and government funded projects; the ‘freelancer’ has to pay her/his own social security coverage, work insurance and a higher tax rate. For the other part, it remains nothing but having an employee with no need to pay for holidays, night and holiday compensations and with a huge ‘flexibility’ to fire him/her with a snap of fingers.

Legally, there is nothing obliging the ‘freelancer’ to commit to a schedule, to wear a uniform or to work overtime. But there is unwritten pressure that if you don’t commit as fully as if you had a contract, you will be kicked out and another person will substitute you. And nobody wants that, right?

The outcome of that is an unfair power relation between employers and ‘employees’ where the first holds by subjugation the second, not giving any kind of labor protection in case of an accident or maternity/paternity, for example.

‘Precarious by force’ is a strong movement in Portugal that came up with the rise of this issues. At the moment it has managed to create a commotion and shift some things as basic rights to social security coverage, sick leave or an unemployment fund.

I decided to mention this because I was one of those ‘Precarious by force’, as a teacher in the private sector, as a community worker in a Government funded project as in other small gigs. My experience of years prepared me mentally to deal with taxes, social security issues and how to be an entrepreneur without being one.

Comparisons and big expectations apart, I got struck by the first time with the Zero-hour contracts when I moved to Helsinki last year. I was coming under the EU agreement that allows you to search for a job inside the EU and being entitled to your unemployment benefit (at the time around 700 euros) for a maximum of three months, until a job is found.

In Finland precariousness is practiced by the Zero-hours contracts: taxes are deducted from your wage and you have no Social Security benefits unless for four consecutive months you get more than 1,200 euros per month

This agreement implies to inform the local Employment office as soon as you find a job and they will communicate back to your country of origin, ceasing your current benefits immediately.

It took me less than one month to find a job with a contract in Finland. I was amazed, due to my previous experience in the job market jungle. But my admiration soon converted to bitterness when I realized that the contract that I was signing was based on the availability of leftover hours the restaurant I was working had.

The month I signed the contract I worked the equivalent to 120 euros, I lost my unemployment allowance, and because the contract was signed in the middle of the month, I had to reimburse to the Portuguese Social Security the equivalent to half a month of benefits. All because legally, the Zero-hour contract (which in my country doesn’t exist) is a contract here and that means you’re employed. And as you can’t predict the number of hours you’ll work and the money you will earn by default, as a precaution they just cut my benefits.

As with ‘freelancers’ in Portugal, the precariousness is practiced by the Zero-hours contracts in Finland: taxes are deducted from your wage, you have no Kela coverage unless you’re lucky and for a period of four consecutive months you get more than 1200 euros per month. Otherwise, like me, you’ll be in the loophole, now almost a year and a half with no right to any social security coverage and all that it implies. The same goes for short-term contracts, to cover actual long-term necessities, being used as a practice in public institutions.

In a utopian vision of fairness, and because it affects not only foreigners like me (also a huge percentage of Finns), maybe it’s time for us to get together and show our discontentment to the Finnish Government. To make them consider enforcing EU policies by diminishing the labor precariousness with more thorough work inspections and passing laws that not only favor one side of the job relation.

Vappu (the 1 May celebration) is at the door, and it’s time to reflect about its meaning to the contemporary society, not being just an excuse to gather and drink some beers in the park.

Again, this is a problem whose scope involves resident and non-resident workers, even though the non-residents tend to be in a more fragile position. Needless to say that only in 1983 Finland allowed emigrant workforce to have the same basic labor rights as other workers, until then non-existent.

Maybe we should consider that in order to continue being the happiest country in the world, shouldn’t our job policies become jollier?