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Multicultural work community achieved a positive spiral – It’s easier to join the trade union when co-workers are already members

Attracting people with an immigrant background is a challenge for the trade union movement. Two institutional cleaners and a special needs class instructor, all JHL members, allowed the immigrant project workers access to Vocational College Live and the secrets of their work.


Institutional cleaner Gerta Koppel is known for teaching how to clean. She has a reputation for being a brisk mentor: During last year, those living in Live Foundation’s student dormitory in Ruskeasuo in Helsinki were so thoroughly trained by her that the dormitory was shining.

This year, Koppel returned to Vocational College Live’s main building located in Leppävaara in Espoo. Her Friday morning chore is teaching project worker Linda Savonen from JHL’s immigrant project how to mop the second-storey floor.

Koppel is happy with the fact that the vocational college has switched to non-chemical cleaning. There’s no reason to moist the mop or switch cleaning products. Even so, only top-notch professionals can carry out the work.

– Don’t use strength. Just move forward with the mop, Koppel instructs, as Savonen handles the mop a little too vigorously.

Institutional cleaner Gerta Koppel explains to JHL’s immigrant project worker Linda Savonen how a star professional cleans.

Live Foundation’s (previously Invalidisäätiö) vocational college offers training and rehabilitation with which to integrate in society. They include studies that prepare for an occupation and strengthen skills, language courses, and student living.

From the trade union’s perspective, the Foundation’s institutional care is an ideal unit: Nearly everyone is a union member.

Open the doors to those with an immigrant background

Trade Union JHL is investing in long-term work among immigrants. Project workers of the union’s immigrant project, Linda Savonen and Neleah Kagiri, have come to learn about the secrets of the multicultural workplace in the name of JHL’s intensive member recruitment weeks.

A big challenge for the Finnish trade union movement is attracting young people and those with an immigrant background. However, the Live Foundation has succeeded quite well at that to an extent. Both students and staff are multicultural. The Board of Live Foundation’s JHL branch has attracted an increased number of young people, and the members are now inspiring one another.

When it comes to those with an immigrant background, typical hinders for them are the language barrier and their own doubts – in many countries, it can be dangerous to belong to a trade union. Prejudices are dispelled by co-workers being members, too.

According to shop steward and cook Jukka Malinen, there’s no single recipe to success. It is a self-feeding positive spiral.

– When one’s co-workers are members, it feels natural to join.

Institutional cleaners Gerta Koppel and Ruth Lutete are training JHL’s Linda Savonen. There’s still room for improvement in her working position, and she should be wearing work gloves.

Gerta Koppel joined JHL over ten years ago. She’s worked for the same employer for 16 years. Koppel didn’t want to return to her native country Estonia, so she learned the Finnish language.

– The teacher suggested watching “Salatut elämät”.

The lines in the daily TV show provided a foundation for Koppel’s new language skills.

During last year, she worked at a dormitory meant for the Live Foundation’s basic vocational education students. There she cleaned with students, most of which had only started to learn Finnish. They didn’t always find a shared language.

In Leppävaara, all cleaning-sector professionals speak the same language, although over a third of them have an immigrant background. According to Koppel, the work community atmosphere is warm hearted and relaxed.

Laitoshuoltaja Ruth Lutete puhdistaa ikkunaa Live-säätiön ammattiopiston luokassa Espoossa

Leppävaara is the largest Live Foundation unit. Eight institutional cleaners are at work at one time, and each of them has their own area of responsibility. Ruth Lutete looks after the fourth-storey classroom spaces.

There’s no need to wait for proof of the good atmosphere, because institutional cleaner Ruth Lutete exits the lift and joins her co-worker. Both Koppel and Lutete have woken up for their shift in the early hours of the morning, but there’s plenty of laughter regardless.

The week before last, Lutete joined the trade union after a co-worker urged her to do so. Two years ago she moved to Finland from Congo, where she worked as a comprehensive school teacher. In the Live Foundation, she studied Finnish and reached language level B1 (average level). Slowly but surely, the language and culture have become more familiar.

Linda Savonen gets a lesson from Lutete in cleaning stairs.

– Stairs are the most difficult area because they’re often full of people.

Many need time to consider before deciding to join

Next to the main building there is a stone house named Verstas. In the classroom, a bunch of special needs students requiring a lot of support is singing a congratulation song to a student who’s recently reached adulthood. There’s candy and popcorn on the table, and the class has cooked Indian food earlier in the day.

There are 11 young people in the group, they represent eight different cultures. They are taking part in Telma training which lasts two to three years. Telma refers to training that prepares for work and independent living.

– It’s important to students with special needs to know what’s happening and when, instructor Hui-Ju Niinimäki explains. Niinimäki is known as Huilu among her co-workers, students and acquaintances.

Congratulations! Special needs class instructor Hui-Ju Niinimäki passes the popcorn.

The Live Foundation’s main purpose is to enable as many people as possible to live as full-fledged members of the Finnish society. For those requiring a lot of support, the goal is to learn to live as independently as possible, to express needs and ask for help.

Many immigrants join the trade union after working for some time. This also goes for Niinimäki who hails from Taiwan. She’s been a JHL member since last summer. She’s worked for six years at the Live Foundation.

– I wish that the trade union would provide more support for employees’ leisure-time hobbies. A proper hobby supports coping at work and well-being, Niinimäki says. In her leisure time, she works out avidly.

Despite the low-pay sector, the Live Foundation as an employer encourages the employees and respects their individuality, according to Niinimäki. The employees also get proper training for their duties.

– My current employer is excellent. This is a multicultural place. You get to be yourself here, whether you’re an employee or a student. In addition, everyone gets to make a difference to their job profile and make use of their competence.

In some units, there is a high degree of unionisation among Live Foundation employees with an immigrant background. However, there is not exactly an abundance of them among the actives. Niinimäki is an energetic person with language skills, the kind people are happy to talk into becoming an active.

Special needs class embraces everyone as who they are

JHL’s immigrant project worker Neleah Kagiri has just talked about JHL with students in the College entrance hall. Some people filled in the membership form as soon as they heard about the union’s important work for, say, the terms and conditions of people with disabilities and immigrant integration.

JHL’s immigrant project workers Neleah Kagiri (on the left) and Linda Savonen (on the right) are taught a lesson in motor coordination by Hui-Ju Niinimäki.

Kagiri and Linda Savonen are taught a lesson in motor coordination by Hui-Ju Niinimäki. Niinimäki asks them to glue small macaronis on a piece of paper.

– Very well done! Niinimäki compliments them.

According to her, giving positive feedback and encouraging motivate the students to try their best. Succeeding at something strengthens the desire to learn new skills.

Each student in the special needs class has their own learning difficulties, and the number of instructors and teachers matches the number of students.

– How can one take people’s individual needs into account? Kagiri asks.

It’s often easier to explain things with pictures than by talking. Niinimäki is showing pictures of rainbows painted by the students. The key to successful special needs education is in the pictures – each one of us is one of a kind, and a happy rainbow of humanity is formed by all of our individual qualities.

– A person needs to be viewed as a person. Huilu is Huilu and Neleah is Neleah. If, say, a new student who happens to be autistic starts at the College, their autism doesn’t matter. What matters is who and what kind of a person they are.

A rainbow says more than words.

Niinimäki thinks that students with special needs are wonderful, and their satisfaction motivates her in her work much more than a monetary compensation.

– I’m lucky to be carrying out work I actually enjoy. When you wake up in the morning thinking “Hey, it’s nice to go to work”, the work is rewarding.

How to recruit more members to the union

1 Don’t hesitate to bring up trade unions and their significance in the workplace.

2 Don’t force anything down anybody’s throat. Listen to the employees’ concerns and look for answers to their questions.

3 Talk about JHL’s protection of interests and membership benefits. They include

  • extensive rights for making agreements in the public and private sector – JHL negotiates over 100 collective agreements
  • support from the workplace shop steward
  • a comprehensive network of local branches and a seamless chain of representation
  • free legal aid in case of disputes
  • the union’s training services for actives and ordinary members
  • a member insurance policy that includes travel insurance for leisure-time travel and accident insurance
  • member magazine Motiivi and online magazine
  • an affordable membership fee, only 1%!
  • events and trips organised by a member’s own JHL branch, and affordable leisure-time cottages.