Stoic Finns take harsh austerity measures in stride

GMT 08:44 2015 Wednesday ,16 September

Arab Today, arab today Stoic Finns take harsh austerity measures in stride

Finland Prime Minister Juha Sipila
Helsinki - AFP

A large number of Finns have accepted with surprising stoicism harsh austerity measures announced by their new government, with even some of the most disadvantaged backing the drastic cuts aimed at reviving a moribund economy.

Prime Minister Juha Sipila's centre-right government has since it came to power in May announced a series of plans to slash benefits and public spending after three years of recession.

The cuts will hit the already underprivileged particularly hard, including pensioners who will lose part of their housing allowance, and low-income shift workers whose Sunday and overtime compensation will be reduced in an unprecedented move.

The country's powerful labour unions have planned widespread strikes on Friday and a major demonstration which they expect to gather tens of thousands of people.

But counter-demonstrations in support of the cuts have also been called, as well as one Facebook event called "At work also on Friday. And proud of it", for which 65,000 people have signed up.

In a poll by Finnish tabloid Iltalehti last week, more than 70 percent of over 1,000 respondents were fully or partly in favour of the cuts, and more than 20 percent said the measures were still insufficient.

During a recent visit to a Helsinki food bank in the Myllypuro neighbourhood, there were few signs of discontent.

Around 800 people stood solemnly in a several hour-long queue, waiting to pick up their bag of surplus food for the weekend.

- 'We Finns don't protest' -

"We have a good government. Finland is so indebted that I approve of all the measures, except for the cuts to pensioners' subsidies," said a 66-year-old woman in line who gave her name as Marjatta.

The government had originally planned to reduce the monthly budget of the 50,000 most disadvantaged senior citizens by 100-300 euros ($115-340), but after a public outcry agreed to limit the cuts to a third of the original amount.

Employees will also not be paid for their first sick leave day, and public sector holidays will be shortened from 38 to 30 working days.

"It's harsh stuff but it is not in Finnish people's nature to go protest. This could never happen in southern Europe where cars would burn and people would be on the streets by now," unemployed plumber Jorma, 61, told AFP.

Finland was long a top performer in the eurozone, but its economy is suffering the effects of its rapidly ageing population and the dwindling of two key sectors of its economy, forestry and the technology industry led by one-time giant Nokia.

Finland's national debt is expected to exceed 60 percent of its annual gross domestic product in 2016, surpassing the ceiling agreed upon as part of the eurozone's Maastricht criteria.

While drastic, the austerity policy is no surprise to Finns: Sipila, of the Centre Party, was elected on campaign promises to get the economy back on track.

His government says Finland needs to increase productivity by reducing labour costs, and has insisted the measures were "indispensable" to fight a 10-billion-euro ($11.1 billion) "public finance sustainability challenge", referring to the public deficit caused by the growing expenses of an ageing population.

Meanwhile, in the commercial neighbourhood of Kamppi in downtown Helsinki, Taneli, a 44-year-old marketing professional, sipped an afterwork beer and said he was mostly pleased with the government's decisions.  

"We have to make savings and it's good that they are now doing something. The spending cuts alone aren't enough, we need also structural reforms, especially in the public sector," he said.

- Faith in the state -

But not everyone was thrilled.

At the Myllypuro food bank, some of those waiting in the queue were less satisfied with Sipila's government, while some others said the spending cuts were necessary but wrongly targeted.

"The government cuts from those who do work but there are still too many people living off of allowances, not even bothering to get up from their couches.

"It's too easy for them to roll over and then head for the pub first thing in the morning. Someone has to pay for it," explained Mikko, 49, who said he was having a hard time making ends meet because of his prolonged sick leave.

Whether or not Finns attend Friday's protests by the thousands remains to be seen, but either way, many seem to be taking the cuts in stride -- a trait Vesa Vares, a professor of political history at the University of Turku, attributed to Finns' trust in authorities to make the right decisions.

"People's faith in the state and in organisations and institutions has been much stronger in Finland than in many other countries. We have had more collective than individualistic traditions," he said.

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