A few years ago Jari Lindström was an unemployed paper mill worker in an industrial town with no future. Today he is Minister of Justice and Employment in the Finnish government planning considerable benefit cuts. Lindström has been forced to defend decisions he was fighting against not long ago.
In this spring’s general elections the Finns Party sensationally took 17.6 percent of the votes and entered parliament as the country’s second largest political party. It won them a seat in the coalition led by Juha Sipilä from the Centre Party. Sipilä was a successful business leader in the IT trade, and has decided to improve Finland’s competitiveness by cutting public expenditure and benefits. The government has promised to create 110,000 new jobs, but that promise has not impressed trade unions. They said no to a so-called social contract which was offered in the middle of the collective bargaining period.
The populist party promised voters to defend the interests of marginalised people, but now finds itself in a situation where they have to do the opposite. Those hardest hit by the cuts are first and foremost low earners. How does that feel for the party’s frontrunners?
The Nordic Labour Journal asks Jari Lindström (50), who since early summer has been the Finns Party’s Minister of Employment with the added responsibility for the Ministry of Justice. The interview is conducted via email because of the government’s intensive negotiations.
Lindström’s personal story runs parallel to the Finns Party’s successes in an interesting way. He comes from Kuusankoski in the south of Finland, one of many industrial towns which has fallen victim to the restructuring of the forestry industry. For many years he worked for the forestry company UPM, owners of the paper factory Voikkaa in his home town of Kuusankoski. In 2006 the closure of the factory had a big effect on the small town of just under 20,000 inhabitants. Finland’s forestry industry is struggling with restructuring programmes which have left thousands of paper workers without jobs.
Lindström used to be a deputy trustee at the Finnish paper workers’ union, which in practical terms was a part of the Social Democratic Party of Finland. Kuusankoski was the Social Democrats’ only stronghold in Finland outside of the major cities. When Voikkaa shut down Jari Lindström lost his job too. Disaffection with the Social Democrats among the party’s core voters is one of the reasons behind the rise of the Finns Party.
After the closure of Voikkaa, Jari Lindström spent several years working short term contracts at nearby forestry companies before he managed to secure a seat in the Finnish parliament in 2011. Lindström, who does weight lifting in his spare time, was inspired by professional wrestler and Finns Party member of parliament Toni Halmes’ populist political image.
Lindström got international attention for saying he would support the death penalty if someone close to him were murdered. Death penalty in peace time was officially abolished in Finland in 1949, and also abolished for war time offences in 1972.
Yet now that Jari Lindström has got access to the corridors of power the situation is very different from when he first entered politics. The government is fighting to restart the economic growth in a country where the 2008 finance crisis still has not entirely loosened its grip and where Nokia’s demise shook the very foundations of the economy. The economic problems are mirrored in rising unemployment figures. In one year unemployment has risen from 7.4 to 8.3 percent and could pass 10 percent next year. If you count supporting measures the total unemployment stands at 18.2 percent.
What did you think about the upcoming reforms and cuts when you became a government minister?
“I knew it would be both tough and difficult.”
What has been the greatest surprise?
“The greatest surprise is the mental strain. It is much larger than what I had expected.”
The government aims to lower wage costs with five percent by reducing benefits. These are measures which will hit low earners in particular, which the Finns Party before the election called “holy”.
The Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions, FFC, predicts conflicts in the labour market if the government pursues cuts to unemployment benefits and if it starts dictating when it comes to local agreements. How do you avoid that conflict?
“Through dialogue. I have no better solution.”
Businesses and the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) thank the government, but the trade unions do not. How is that for you as a former union activist?
“It is difficult because I know how the trade union movement thinks. On the other side we have to push through some reforms.
The effects of the decisions which are being made will not be seen for another ten to 15 years. In what way, do you think?
“We just have to believe that this will have an effect, if not you wouldn’t dare do anything at all.”
How does the party deal with these kinds of difficult issues?
“We have group meetings, negotiations and other ways of communicating internally.”
One of the former government’s achievements was to introduce the youth guarantee which gives young people the right to a job, education or other support. Will you maintain it?
“It will remain and will develop into a society guarantee.”
Some 50,000 Finnish youths have no job nor education beyond secondary school. The government still has not said what exactly the society guarantee will contain, but the idea was part of the Centre Party’s programme before the general elections where the aim was to halve the number of youths at risk, while saving “billions” in
There are very few women at the negotiating table, if any, when the government meets the social partners to negotiate important social issues. Why? Is this something that does not concern women? Are women not capable of negotiating these things?
“Men have been elected to handle these issues in the different organisations and that would be the reason. We should have more women.”
What is your personal relationship to the quality of working life in Finland? What are the challenges and how should working life develop?
“In a number of work places things are in good order, but there are many things that can be improved when it comes to leadership, opportunities to influence the work’s content, work place issues and so on. Local agreements could give us more tools.”
One of the government’s hobbyhorses has been to increase the employment rate. Jari Lindström has several times been talking abut mechanisms which mean unemployed people can’t or won’t accept the jobs offered to them. In Finland benefit systems which are considered to be obstacles to employment are known as diligence traps, in Sweden they are called poverty traps of marginal effects.
When you were unemployed, which kinds of diligence traps did you experience?
“The means tested benefit was good on one level, but it could have a pacifying effect on some. And the employer’s duty to rehire could pacify people who perhaps would just wait to be recalled.”
Did you then get ideas about how labour policies could be improved?
“Towards activation, but that is dependent on jobs.”
You told a press conference recently that you spend a lot of time talking to people about the quality of the labour exchange. What have people been telling you?
“There has been talk about inefficient labour services and interpretations, and that people must wait for a long time before they get help. They are told things like ‘we will get back to you in six months’.”
Ombudsman Harri Hietala will soon present his ideas for how local contractual law could be extended. How much weight will his proposals carry?
“The report is important, but of course it cannot solve every problem.”
How do you view the Finnish labour market compared to the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish ones?
“In Denmark it is much easier to sack people and they push activation of unemployed people very hard. At the same time the means tested benefit is higher.”
What kind of contacts do you have within the Nordic region?
“They are thin on the ground, but during the autumn I am meeting Nordic colleagues.”
How do you manage to relax despite the demanding task you have been given?
“You just have to make some time for yourself and your family. I go to the cabin.”
Which book are you currently reading?
”Se mikä ei tapa” by David Lagercrantz” (The Girl in the Spider’s Web)
What is your favourite work tool?
As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?
What is your hidden talent?
I am a statistics freak when it comes to sports