Non-permanent employment and fear of economic downturn cast shadow on work

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The Finnish Ministry of Labour published its yearly 'working life barometer' in December 2001. The results indicate that employees on fixed-term and temporary contracts are discriminated against more than other groups at the workplace. Employees' general attitude to changes in working life has also shifted towards scepticism, and they fear a recurrence of severe economic recession.

The Ministry of Labour's yearly 'working life barometer ' was published in December 2001. This was the 10th issue of the publication, which has described clearly the changes in Finnish working life in the 1990s. The findings can be generalised to apply to all wage earners employed in Finland. Most of the data in the 2001 report are comparable with those for 1992-2000.

Employed doing well but fear recession

According to the barometer, wage earners see their own position as strong. A majority of Finns believe that they will find a new job if they become unemployed. Especially the older age groups in the working community state that their position has improved. Overall, those in employment still believe that they will have sufficient work, even though it is feared that the general employment situation will worsen during the next year. The proportion of employees expecting to be dismissed is only slightly higher than in the previous year. Dismissal in the coming year is thought possible by 8% of the respondents. During the recession in the early 1990s, this was feared by 10%-15%. The fear of lay-off is currently reported by 13%, compared with over 40% in 1992-3.

Wage earners fear a repeat of the severe recession of the early 1990s. At the deepest point of the downturn in 1992-3, unemployment skyrocketed, reaching about 20% at worst. In the 2001 study, employees were asked how great they considered the possibility that another recession comparable to the last would occur during the next 10 years. The trauma of the early 1990s seems to have been burned into people's minds. One in 10 consider a repeat 'most likely', and over half estimate it to be 'quite possible'. Only 3% say that a recurrence is impossible. Women are more pessimistic than men: 72% think that a new downturn is possible. The risk is felt in every age group. Only the youngest are a little less pessimistic than others.

Positive trend in working life has weakened

The most significant change in the latest barometer is that in 2001, for the first time in 10 years, the employees believe that the direction of change is worse than one year earlier. The workers' estimation of change was most gloomy in 1993. At that time, the majority of respondents considered that the meaningfulness of work was taking a turn for the worse. The 2001 results indicate the same trend, and uncertainty has grown rapidly. The factors seen as deteriorating are: equality of opportunities between the sexes at workplaces; the possibilities for self-development; the possibility to exert influence; and obtaining information on the goals of the job. With regard to trends in methods of leadership at work, similar proportions of respondents take a negative and a positive view.

Discrimination against fixed-term employees

Discrimination against, and unequal treatment of, employees has also been studied in the barometer at intervals of a few years. The grounds for discrimination examined in the questionnaire have been expanded, and the generality of discrimination against temporary workers has been emphasised. Earlier results showed that discrimination based on age was most noticeable, being more common than that based on sex or ethnic background, for example. Discrimination appeared mostly in the public sector, and women reported more discrimination than men.

The latest results affirm the earlier ones. In 2001, women were discriminated against most in industry, where 10% reported observing discrimination directed towards women at the workplace. Discrimination against older employees was observed almost twice as frequently as against younger employees. In 2001, the questionnaire contained an additional question concerning the non-permanency or part-time nature of many working relationships, and this was found to be a clearly more noticeable ground of discrimination. Some 14% of all wage-earners stated that they had observed discrimination of this kind. A notable finding was that discrimination against temporary workers and fixed-term employees in the public sector was more than double that in the private sector. One in five state employees and almost one in four municipal workers said that they had observed discrimination directed towards temporary and part-time workers.

Unionisation of non-permanent employees lower

Another significant finding of the 2001 barometer is that the unionisation rate of 'permanent' employees on open-ended contracts is 85%, but that unionisation seems to be bound up with the duration of employment. It appears that only 70% of fixed-term employees are organised in trade unions. This is partly due to their youth, and possibly also to their level of education. The unionisation of young people and persons with low levels of education has dropped during the last 10 years.

The labour market position of fixed-term employees is clearly more precarious than the norm, as they fear dismissals, lay-offs and transfers more than others do. In addition, their participation in workplace training is clearly lower, and tends to be short term.

The majority of new jobs are not subject to open-ended employment contracts. However, the hiring of permanent personnel has increased during the last few years. Non-permanency is concentrated more in the public sector - in 2001, the proportion of permanent recruits in the public sector was 19%, whereas the analogous proportion in the private sector was double that.

Commentary

The findings of the work life barometer give a slightly contradictory picture of the kind of threats that Finnish employees feel that they are facing. The formerly high level of growth in the Finnish economy has slumped from a level of 5%-6% per year to under 1%, and the slowing of growth is in itself arousing growing fears for the future. This is experienced at the general level; but when employees are asked about keeping their own jobs, then confidence is high.

The employees who believe themselves to be in trouble are those who have not been able to stabilise their own position, but remain in 'atypical' employment - although their treatment in such work is not experienced as equal. The fact that the perceived meaningfulness of work has dropped to the lowest level in 10 years gives cause for surprise. It is possible that, with the threat of recession, the significance of employed work as a method for achieving personal success and climbing the social ladder is seen as diminishing. Also, there may be a feeling of confusion that a worker's own work input and flexibility may be rewarded by dismissal when the general economic situation weakens. This is also part of a wider European discussion on finding the balance between security and flexibility. (Juha Hietanen, Ministry of Labour)

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