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Finland's Anni Sinnemäki: passionate about an individually tailored welfare system

Finland's Anni Sinnemäki: passionate about an individually tailored welfare system

| Text: Berit Kvam

Finland's Minister of Labour wants to make individuals visible. Young people should not be seen as a uniform group but as separate people with different needs. In Finland a lot of time has been spent analysing each person's situation, and as a result, she says, the state can offer more rational measures tailored to the individual's needs.

Young people who end up outside of the labour market is one of the greatest challenges European governments are faced with. The Nordic countries too have had to focus a lot on young people who end up outside the system, yet measures have been sporadic and not particularly well co-ordinated. As a result the Iceland meeting of Nordic labour ministers last autumn commissioned a report detailing all measures targeted at young people in all the Nordic countries. Anni Sinnemäki was one of those who tabled the proposal. The report will be presented at a Copenhagen conference on 8 October. 

"The report shows it is important to act fast when dealing with young people, and it is important to focus on education. In Finland we have done this quite consciously," says Anni Sinnemäki. She likes it when politics are based on empirical data and when you can see that things can actually be achieved. 

The views from the government offices on the sixth floor on Södra Esplanaden allow for an enjoyable half hour wait for the interviewee. Luckily we do not have to reduce our allotted 45 minutes with the minister. Her next appointment is a photo shoot with a woman's weekly. Anni Sinnemäki greets us with a friendly smile, she eats one or two grapes but has no time to eat any of the tempting cakes on offer before our time is up. 

"She should try to eat something between meetings," her secretary says considerately.

Finland's wide-ranging measures

Minister of Labour Anni Sinnemäki does not believe the labour market crisis is over. Overall unemployment will not fall just yet. She is optimistic about young people, however. She feels the government has done a lot of good work, with a broad spectre of new measures leading to reduced youth unemployment.

The Sansi card scheme secures subsidies for businesses that hire young people with weak connections to the labour market. Furthermore, 10,000 new vocational training places have been established, along with an entirely new kind of vocational training called Yrkesstart (Vocational start). Here young people can try out different specialities before committing themselves to what they want to do. The government has also passed legislation to ease the exchange of information between social services, school health services and the labour market services. There is co-ordination of measures targeted at young people, and nobody should be left behind without anyone in the system knowing where they are. 

The trend turned in June, when youth unemployment figures fell. Anni Sinnemäki thinks this marks a turning point. 

"Now that we have all these measures in place for young people I am optimistic about seeing a clear decrease in youth unemployment this autumn."

The broken guarantee

Yet she admits it would have been possible to act even faster than the government has done. The social guarantee for young people promises support for young people within three months. 

"Three months is a long time to wait for a young person," says Sinnemäki.

It also turns out only three in four youths have found suitable work or education within three months, leaving one in four with nothing.

"You could ask yourself whether it should have to take so long. Perhaps we need a system akin to the Danish one where they adjust the level of active labour market measures in tune with the unemployment level."

Not a homogenous group

"Or perhaps," she goes on, "the fact that they took time to analyse the situation could be the reason they have been able to develop a more individually tailored approach.

"Youth do not form a uniform group. They are different. Some have no education, some have social problems, some have a good education but need help to find work. Spending time analysing each individual's situation has allowed us to develop measures which are pretty rational and targeted to meet people's different needs," she says.


Another great challenge for Finland is the number of young people who are forced out of working life and into early retirement (on a disability pension) because of depression or other illnesses. Here too the government believes in early intervention as the best way of helping people. Ms Sinnemäki says the government has decided to change the way the treatment of depression is financed from 2011. It will reverse the usual model of setting aside a set sum of money in the budget for depression treatment. The need for treatment will be assessed based on certain criteria, and if needed the treatment will start as early as possible. Primary health care will be given more responsibility and rules for sick leave will be tightened. Public campaigns will try to change the way depression is viewed in the work place and by individuals. People suffering from depression and lesser psychological disorders should be able to work, and if necessary work shorter hours. There is also a drive to fight drug misuse. 

"Drug misuse and depression are often linked. Depression can be the source of misuse, and misuse can be the source of depression. So the government has increased the alcohol duty three times since it was reduced when Estonia joined the EU. It now looks like we are in control of alcohol consumption, which makes me very happy," says Anni Sinnemäki.

The crisis is not over

The labour market's challenges do not end with the young. While overall unemployment has stopped rising, long-term unemployment is on the up. She can see no immediate end to that situation.

"The crisis hits different groups at different times. The export industry took the first hit, but their situation is brighter now. Yet for those who lost their job and no longer can draw unemployment benefit, only minimum benefit, the crisis is far from over. And the number of people on minimum benefit is still rising."

Increasing long-term unemployment

The situation is very serious, continues Anni Sinnemäki:

"During the crisis many businesses decided to divide the reduced amount of work that needed to be done between more workers. We saw the introduction of a system of temporary redundancies and temporary reduced working hours. Now these same businesses have started re-employing those on temporary redundancy while increasing the working hours for those who had reduced their hours. They've been able to increase production considerably without hiring new staff. This is one of several reasons we won't see a sudden drop in unemployment figures. We also know that the newly educated are more attractive on the labour market than people who have been unemployed for one and a half years. So long-term unemployment looks set to keep rising for a while unless we come up with even more effective measures," says Ms Sinnemäki.

More unemployed with better education

Some 200,000 people live in Helsinki's neighbouring municipality Vanda. A visit to the job centre there shows how important individually targeted measures can be. The minister says there seems to be a more optimistic outlook among the workers there now compared to during 1990s recession. Even though many have been unemployed for a year or more, most now have a better education and skills. 

"Many will definitely find a job when the downturn ends."

But the long-term unemployed form no uniform group either, she says. Some need more immediate help like supported employment, which often is organised in co-operation with the voluntary sector. 

"The problem is that what's on offer is often fragmented and not always efficient," says Sinnemäki. She prefers using the power of example - best practice.

Workers below the poverty line

Another big and increasing problem is the fact that 10 percent of people in work don't earn enough to support themselves or their family. 

"That number has risen both before and during the crisis," says Sinnemäki.

"These are people who can't find a full-time job, people with families who can't make enough money to support their children, single mothers. Often the pay is not enough to support the high cost of living in and around the capital.

"What do we need to do? I believe we need to build more rental accommodation. The government also wants to lower taxes for low-income groups. It is important to encourage trade union membership, and I also believe the government should improve the monitoring of the grey and black economy."

Next year is election year...

If the government were to loose, what do you want to be your legacy?

"What I'm really pleased about is that we this year have passed a law securing unemployed people the right to choose their education. Education used to be part of labour market measures for the unemployed, but if you received unemployment benefit you were only allowed to study whatever was on offer through the job centre. The job centre paid for this education, and if you started studying something of your own choosing at a place of study of your own choice, you lost your benefit rights. With the change in legislation people can now choose what they want to study yet keep their benefit. 

"This year some 4,000 people have taken advantage of this. It's not a major deal, but for me it symbolises what I always try to highlight: the system must be tailored to the individual. Our welfare system does not always allow for such individualisation," says Ms Sinnemäki.  

More about Anni Sinnemäki

Minister of Labour in Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's second government in Finland on 26 June 2009, then in Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi's government  on 22 June 2010. Anni Sinnemäki is the youngest of many young government ministers. Born in 1973, she has already enjoyed a long political career. She has been a member for the Green League of Finland in parliament since 1999 and was elected party leader in 2009. Mari Kiviniemi leads a majority coalition government comprising the Centre Party, The National Coalition Party, the Green League of Finland and the Swedish People's Party in Finland.

Treat people as individuals

Minister of Labour Anni Sinnemäki used to be deputy leader for Helsinki municipality's culture committee, she wrote lyrics for what was one of Finland's most popular bands and she has written several poetry collections. So the question is:

Can art be used more effectively in labour market politics?

"The Nordic welfare model has been mostly positive, but there's been one drawback - people who need help have often been treated as objects. Art can help activate people in new ways. It can increase self-awareness and self-confidence which will strengthen the individual when he or she chooses a future path.

"Before I became a government minister I visited places like the church diaconate service and participated in debates with women with long-term personal problems who were encouraged to write about their experiences. I have been writing in a professional capacity myself, but at the end of the day the difference might not be that great. I think such methods could be used more in both labour market politics and social politics. People must be seen and treated as individuals with their own free will, and they must be included in working life," says Finland's Minister of Labour, Anni Sinnemäki.


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