Jyri Häkämies, the director general of the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), reacted at a news conference in Helsinki on 9 February 2024. Häkämies confirmed on YLE A-studio on Tuesday that EK has collectively drawn the conclusion that employers can suspend wage payments at workplaces where employees cannot work due to the ongoing political strike’s side-effects. (Emmi Korhonen – Lehtikuva)

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STAKES in the Finnish labour market have only risen since the start of a two-week political strike that has halted cargo handling at ports and disrupted both goods transport and process industries.

Members of the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) have collectively decided that wage payments can be suspended immediately at all production facilities that have to be shut down due to the indirect effects of the strike, Jarkko Ruohoniemi, the CEO of Technology Industry Employers, revealed to Helsingin Sanomat on Tuesday.

The decision means payments can be suspended also at workplaces that are not participating in the strikes if they have to suspend production due to, for example, disruptions in raw material deliveries.

“This is our interpretation,” said Ruohoniemi.

Jyri Häkämies, the director general of EK, confirmed the interpretation on YLE A-studio on Tuesday.

“In layman’s terms, you could say that wage is paid for work that’s done,” he remarked. “I’m sure the opportunities to do other work will be evaluated separately at each company. The conclusions are pretty straightforward in export industries: when exports aren’t moving, there’s no production.”

He underscored that the decision should not be viewed as retribution for the two-week strike, thereby rejecting the suggestion of Jarkko Eloranta, the chairperson at the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK).

“[Employer organisations] are instructing their member companies to take illegal action,” Eloranta said on A-studio. “Individual employers will decide whether to abide by the employer organisations’ instructions.”

The Finnish Industrial Union labelled the decision as a lockout.

Large Finnish forest industry companies have arrived at the same conclusion as EK. Metsä Group, Stora Enso and UPM on Monday announced they intend to suspend wage payments at workplaces that have to shut down production due to the indirect effects of the strike, affecting the livelihood of hundreds of employees.

The Paperworkers’ Union, in response, stated that it intends to ask a court to rule on what it considers a misguided interpretation of the employment contracts act.

The dispute stems from divergent interpretations of the act. While the act is unambiguous about the payment of wage to employees who are on strike – no wages are paid, and trade unions compensate for the loss of income with strike pay – it is more ambiguous in circumstances where employees cannot work due to a strike they are not participating in.

If an employee is prevented from working by “industrial action by other employees that is independent of the employee’s employment terms or working conditions, the employee is, however, entitled to pay for a maximum of seven days,” section 12 of the act reads.

Employer organisations, thus, have interpreted that the ongoing strike is not independent of the employment terms or working conditions of non-participating employees who are prevented from working.

Ruohoniemi from Technology Industry Employers on Tuesday argued to Helsingin Sanomat that SAK has taken an approach where a small group of employees are on strike on behalf of all employees in order to torpedo the labour market reforms of the central government.

“These strikes have a direct impact on the situation at other workplaces. The payment of wages can be suspended with immediate effect, although each company will of course make its own decisions,” he said.

Enterprises warned about legal ramifications

The Federation of Finnish Enterprises (Yrittäjät), however, has advised its members to carefully weigh up the situation before suspending wage payments.

“I’ve heard that there have been many kinds of problems, but I haven’t heard that people have had to completely stop working because of the strikes. I’m sure many companies have to consider this if these strikes go on for a while,” Mikael Pentikäinen, the managing director of Yrittäjät, said to STT on Wednesday.

While he estimated that many companies will want to stand by other companies, he said the federation has advised its members to consider the continuation of wage payments as the situation unfolds.

“We’ve noted that there may be grounds for suspending wage payments, but that the issue is legally unclear,” he remarked, indicating that companies that suspend wage payments immediately should have the readiness and resources to deal with possible litigation.

“I’ve understood that legal processes are expected,” said Pentikäinen.

Launched by several member unions of SAK, including the Industrial Union and Transport Workers’ Union (AKT), on Monday, the two-week strike has suspended the handling of cargo at ports and disrupted both rail freight services and process industry operations.

Some unions have expressed their readiness to extend the strike by another two weeks if necessary.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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