Last Sunday, Helsingin Sanomat published an extensive article on cleaning practices that easily lead to even criminal misuse of labor, regardless of working time laws or occupational safety and health. However, the phenomenon is neither unique nor new.
The working conditions of cleaners, as well as construction and retail vendors, have been updated since at least the 1980s. The government responded to the article by promising force measures to clean up the cleaning industry, or at least to clarify the situation and prepare possible measures.
However, abuses in the cleaning industry are not the disease itself, but only symptoms of the basic problems of the entire Finnish labor market. Cleaning, like the work of a construction, salesman, or waitress, are tasks with a fairly low level of demands and productivity that traditionally start careers.
Prior to the proliferation of automation, similar tasks were also found on industrial conveyor belts, but they have disappeared as unprofitable. The vending machines do not take holidays or sick leave and make an exact flat mark, so when they began to be available, the choice of plant was clear. Just like a single diesel engine is cheaper for a ship than a hundred rowers or fifty sail diggers.
Jobs with low demands and productivity are most often also open to immigrants. In the 1960s, Finnish immigrants also started in Sweden from Volvo and Saab conveyor belts, restaurant countertops or cleaners. Those who were a little more educated could also go to hospitals as auxiliary nurses, especially since many Finns knew at least some Swedish and were also willing to learn it.
A particularly serious symptom of the situation is the cleaning services purchased by municipalities from labor abusers. Municipalities began outsourcing the cleaning of their premises in the early 1990s, when Esko Aho's government demanded drastic spending cuts, but left their implementation to the municipalities.
The cleaners had a simple layoff and purchase service from a private producer. Since the most important thing was to show spending cuts, the service was bought from the one who offered it at the cheapest. Secondary was the quality of service provided, as evidenced by repeated news from mold schools or degraded health stations and libraries.
For cleaning service providers, municipal outsourcing provided an opportunity: when it sold cheaply, it got a buyer who was certainly solvent and less often even willing to delve into the results of the work.
When the native Finns were more or less reluctant to clean up, it was easy to hire immigrants who had fewer other opportunities when they did not know useful languages in Finland and did not attend Finnish primary school. They were also more willing than Finns to work long days without evening and overtime, because they did not know that there were any. The same was done by Finns in Sweden before they began to learn the ways of a folk home.
The Broadcasting Newsletter used to say that “an opportunity makes a thief, YOU make an opportunity” and called for caution with car doors and valuables, for example. In the same way, outsourcing municipal services to the cheapest provider opens the door for abusers to clean up cheaply, worth the price.
Private individuals also buy cleaning services, but for companies their price is a cost that can be deducted in taxation. Poor cleaning, in turn, increases companies' sick leave and costs, so they also have an interest in controlling the quality of the service they purchase and, if necessary, changing producer.
The municipality is not harmed, at least in terms of cost, if schoolchildren sniff or dust accumulates in the corners of the library.
The abuse of labor and the poor quality of cleaning could be combated by setting up one or more municipalities' own cleaning service to carry out all the tasks of former plant-specific cleaners.
Such a company could also hire immigrants to adapt to Finnish practice, where, as a general rule, maintenance must be earned by oneself instead of waiting for a decision on an immigration permit at the reception center and living on support. At least according to fragmented press reports, these immigrants would prefer to do something useful.
By working with Finns, they would also learn the language faster than in quick courses at reception centers. Practical language skills when there is a different matter than grammar-focused basic education. The municipal option would protect immigrants from the worst providers of underpaid and overpaid work and could also challenge them by offering private service buyers quality of work instead of price.
To make this happen, it will require changes in the work permit practices of, for example, immigrants and asylum seekers. Working time practices and, for example, night and holiday work allowances also go down in history. This would reduce opportunities for labor abusers, at least in the cleaning industry. The construction industry is then entirely its own, albeit with a similar tangle of problems.
The author is a freelance journalist.