Finns strike, protest against harsh austerity cuts

People demonstrate against budget measures proposed by the Finnish government, at the Central Railway Station in Helsinki, September 18, 2015. — Reuters pic
People demonstrate against budget measures proposed by the Finnish government, at the Central Railway Station in Helsinki, September 18, 2015. — Reuters pic

HELSINKI, SEPT 18 — Around 30,000 people rallied in Helsinki today against the Finnish government’s harsh austerity measures, as a strike shut down the country’s public transport, postal and harbour services and grounded some domestic flights.

Huge crowds braved a blustery thunderstorm to join the demonstration in a central square of the Finnish capital at midday, in a festive atmosphere with balloons and pop music blaring from speakers.

“No way!” read placards carried by some demonstrators, who numbered around 30,000 according to both organisers and police.

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila last week announced plans to revive the eurozone country's slumping economy after three years of recession, including cutting back holidays, reducing pensioners’ housing allowances and slashing employees' overtime and Sunday pay.

"The Finnish state has contracted debt at a rate of almost a million euros (RM4.8 million) per hour for seven years, day and night, every day of the week. We cannot continue like this," Sipila said in a rare televised address to the nation on Wednesday, urging Finns to accept the measures.

He has insisted the plan is "indispensable" to increase productivity by reducing labour costs, describing Finland's economic situation as "exceptionally serious".

But the impact of those measures was shown by protestor Miikka Rauhala, a 46-year-old museum employee, carrying a sign saying "1848 euros, cut from that Sipila".

"It's my gross monthly salary without the weekend supplements that they now want to cut. Museums are open six days a week. They also want to cut my holidays and the retirement age keeps being pushed back," he said.

Facebook counter-protest

Today’s strike hit Helsinki’s transport system leaving around 400,000 people who regularly use trains, trams, metros or buses in Helsinki having to find other ways to get around, many of them either cycling, walking or opting to stay home.

Finnair said it had cancelled 15 domestic flights, while domestic ferry traffic, harbour and postal services were interrupted.

Only a few schools and daycare centres were closed, and police services were operating with minimum staff.

Finland, once a top performer in the eurozone, has seen its economy crumble under the effects of its rapidly ageing population and declines in key sectors such as forestry and technology, the latter once led by one-time world leader Nokia.

Despite the huge anti-austerity rally, a surprising number of Finns said they approved of the austerity measures.

A poll by tabloid Iltalehti last week showed that more than 70 per cent of over 1,000 respondents were fully or partly in favour of the cuts, including more than 20 per cent who said the measures were insufficient.

And by this afternoon, more than 85,000 people — almost three times the number of demonstrators in Helsinki — had joined a Facebook event called “At work also on Friday. And proud of it.”

At today's demonstration, many protestors complained that the government's measures would hit the weakest earners the hardest.

“Some cuts could be acceptable, but it’s not fair that they only affect a specific group of people,” said Sanna Aalto, a 24-year-old nurse from the town of Turku, referring to low-income public sector shift workers such as herself.

Black Tuesday

The government announced the cuts last Tuesday after the country’s labour unions had rejected its proposal for a deal with employers' organisations and unions on taxes, wages and working hours.

Today, Sipila said that unions could have until the end of the month to present a new “social contract” if they wanted.

Some of the unions said they would negotiate, but at the demonstration their leaders were critical.

“Last Tuesday was a black Tuesday for Finnish employees when the government announced its plan to wreck the Finnish way of negotiating,” Antti Palola, head of the Finnish Confederation of Professionals STTK, said to a cheering crowd.

Paavo Salo, a 61-year-old industrial union employee attending the demonstration, accused the government of acting undemocratically.

"This is like a dictatorship, when they start to dictate" instead of negotiate with the unions, he said.

Another STTK representative, Katariina Murto, echoed that sentiment.

“We the unions have organised this demonstration against the government’s measures, including the restrictions to freedom of agreement, coercive laws and the deterioration of employment conditions,” she said. — AFP