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Chiara: In Finland, Everybody Is a Union Member

Chiara Costa-Virtanen, 32, lives in Helsinki, Finland, and works in the public sector. She is also the proud mother of a lovely Finnish-Italian child.

Originally from Naples, Italy, Chiara holds a university degree in plurilinguism and multiculturalism from the University of Naples. She moved to Finland seven years ago.

For the first three years of her new life in Finland, Chiara managed to find work at an English-language workplace. That is why she didn’t bother to learn Finnish at all. But when she decided she wanted to stay in Finland, she understood it was time to learn Finnish, and that is what she did. It helped that nobody at her new job spoke English, let alone Italian. It only took her three months to get by in Finnish.

Making Sense of Your Finnish Work Contract

”Languages are best learned on the job, but rarely does an employer offer courses in professional Finnish, and for jobseekers, it is even harder,” Chiara says.

She feels employers don’t want to risk it and hire foreigners who dont speak perfect Finnish.

Chiara first heard of the Finnish trade union JHL from a colleague who was also an immigrant.

”It can be hard to understand the text of the collective agreement that the trade union has negotiated with the employers and that is the basis of your work contract. But the people at the trade union will explain it to you!”

Chiara Costa-Virtanen

No Stigma Attached to Union Membership

Chiara was at first cautious about joining a trade union.

”In Italy, unions are very politicized, and being a union member profiles a person right away. This is why many foreigners are afraid to join, but in Finland, unions have members of every political orientation.”

Membership in a trade union brings along it also membership in an unemployment fund. Often this and other important information is missed.

”My colleague recruited me by talking to me! You have to spend time and focus on foreigners. Not everybody goes to the website,” Chiara says.

Finally, Chiara attended union courses and got to know other immigrants there. Some were in the same field as she, and that way, the course was also an opportunity for networking.

Negotiating Better Salaries

Chiara sees many benefits in belonging to a trade union, especially for immigrants.

”Being a union member means that if ever there is any unfairness at work, you don’t have to fight it alone,” she says.

Obviously, there is no way a foreigner can be aware of all the rights that employees have in Finland. Chiara points out that she can feel safe, however, because she knows there are professionals at the trade union who are there for her.

”I can get help in negotiating my work contract, the terms of the contract, the salary… I will receive  help and do better than if I had to manage alone.”

Chiara points out that foreigners are often happy to just get work and tend to be thankful and not ask for more, but the union helps you appreciate yourself and get the best deal.

”Even highly educated people can have bad wages. Foreign job seekers often start low, so it is important for them to have professionals helping them,” she says.

Webinar on Trade Unions

Chiara is today chairwoman and founder of IWWOF- International Working Women of Finland ry. So far, more than 4,500 women have joined the closed group to talk about their experiences in Finnish working life and to network. The group also offers ‘after work’ events that attracted between 30-70 people each before the pandemic.

The main interests of the association are the employment of foreigners, wellbeing at workplaces, antidiscrimination and equality. IWWOF is organizing a webinar on what exactly is a trade union, what does it mean, what difference does it make when you are unemployed etc.

You can read more about Chiara and her work at www.chiaracostavirtanen.com

Text: Susanna Bell