Studying Finnish labour law: reflections from a research visit to Leeds

by Liisa Lähteenmäki, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (University of Turku)

Liisa Lahteenmaki presenting at CERIC Seminar

Liisa Lahteenmaki talks about labour law and political discourses in Finland.

I had great pleasure to be a visiting researcher at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) in September-October 2018. I found CERIC to be an inspiring, multi-disciplinary research environment hosting a wide array of projects dealing with contemporary key employment issues, such as platform employment, employees’ health and welfare, and regulation of transnational labour markets. I also had the opportunity to give a CERIC research seminar about my current research project, which examines the changes made to the Finnish labour and employment legislation during the last 20 years.

Since 2003, Finland has witnessed a period of conservative or right-wing governments, the country being led by either the Centre party or the National Coalition. Historically, protective and empowering labour and employment legislation was forged by social democratic governments, and the period from the 1970s throughout the 1980s is carved into the collective memory of the nation as the years of stable progress in employment rights, labour protections and social welfare. This development was abruptly broken by the 1990s recession as the repercussions mainly meant degradation of welfare, wages, education, health services and stable employment.

Since the 1990s, neoliberal policies and market enhancing ideologies have swept Finland similarly to any other country, rendering the currency and ideals of labour protection and social welfare under attack. The triumphs of the welfare state were suddenly conceptualized as problems, even obstacles to economic growth. These turns have inevitably had effects on law-making.

Besides being interested in the trends and changes in labour and employment legislation per se, my research discusses the interplay between legislation, the reality of the labour markets, and other employment relevant phenomena in the Finnish society. I am particularly interested in the practice of law-making bases on the ideals of unbiased information and broad participation while the outcome, the actual law, is seen as a result of disinterested and rational decision making. Furthermore, I am interested in examining the interplay of legislation imposed and passed in ‘separate’ fields of society that are nevertheless always unavoidably interconnected: Legislation regulating migration, economy or human rights have percussions in the labour markets and vice versa, and this tends to be  ignored in discussions about changing employment and welfare.

Law itself upholds practices of sectoral decision making by, for example, restricting assessments of influence to sometimes generic issues (e.g. influences on the economy and administrative burdens), and by repeating the idea of law as an endogenous system, with its own internal rules and discourses. Laws regulating employment nevertheless always influence a multitude of other domains in everyday life: family and habitation, migration, and education, just to mention a few. Also, events taking place in ‘real life’ – that is, migration, families and lifestyle choices people make – do affect labour market outcomes. In this vein, my research examines what the possible repercussions of labour legislation are beyond the obvious, and how this ‘two-way traffic’ should be better taken into account when planning and justifying new labour legislation.

From the starting point of the idea of social protection as a critical concept, I will be evaluating the changes in the Contracts of Employment Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the Unemployment Benefits Act. My research will ask whether we are still following the original paradigm and ideals of labour law (protecting the weaker party of the employment relationship) and Nordic welfare state (equality and leveling down of social and economic differences) when making changes to labour legislation. Borrowing from Lappi-Seppälä (2007) and Pratt (2008), I will use the idea of Scandinavian Exceptionalism in mapping the trends of labour legislation through some of the most critical years in the Finnish economy: From the unparalleled economic depression of the 1990s to the joining to the EU, the miracle of Nokia, the closures of the paper mills, and the rise of the gaming industry (e.g. Supercell and Rovio) in the 2000s. While Lappi-Seppälä and Pratt refer to the penal policies and the low levels of imprisonment in the Nordic countries, I will use the term in reference to the employment policies which have traditionally emphasized both the social democratic model of tripartite negotiations and the recognition of the unions, as well as the idea of social protection over maximum profits and insecure employment.

It truly was encouraging to be part of this community for a while. I would like to express my gratitude especially to CERIC Member Dr. Jo Ingold for taking an active part in organizing my visit. I hope that my visit in CERIC and Leeds University will lead to inspiring cooperation as my aim is to broaden my research to include international comparisons. It would indeed be an honour to work together again with CERIC colleagues.

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