Nursery school teacher and shop steward Thu Huynh of Pilke Taikavuori day care centre is an active union member, and the trade union needs an increasing number of such members. Thanks to people like her, those with an immigrant background will get a stronger status in the Finnish working life, and everybody wins.
It’s early morning in the Kallio district of Helsinki, where the English-speaking Pilke Playschool Taikavuori is already fully up and running. Half an hour is enough time for Thu Huynh to play Kimble and Uno with the children, bake heart-shaped pastries, and familiarise herself with the private social services sector’s printed collective agreement.
A large yard and four children’s rooms belong to her playschool teacher territory. As a shop steward, she’ll be working in the adjoining office space.
Huynh, 30, became a shop steward for Pilke chain’s day care centre Taikavuori in November 2022. Huynh manages her work duties in English, and the same goes for her position of responsibility. However, she believes she can get a full grasp of shop steward duties by learning more Finnish.
Huynh attended the first-ever course for immigrant-origin shop stewards organised by JHL, which gave her new inspiration for her language studies. The possibilities provided by the union to make a difference came as a pleasant surprise for her.
– I usually didn’t pay attention to e-mails from JHL because most of them are in Finnish. However, in August last year I saw an e-mail in English, and I noticed information about a course taught in English in Tampere. I decided to give it a try to see how it’s like.
Nursery school teacher Thu Huynh of Pilke Playschool Taikavuori works in English.
On the course, a nursery school teacher from Tampere told about the union and lit a spark within Huynh. Huynh has always had a need to make a difference, and as a shop steward and union active she can also respond to challenges bigger than those of one workplace: The Finnish labour market needs foreign labour, and the union needs to provide service to immigrant-origin members along with attracting more such members.
– Now I aim to attend as many JHL Institute courses as possible, whether in English or Finnish.
Shop stewards are bridge-builders
Thu Huynh views shop stewards as bridge-builders. Even a good workplace has challenges, and the solution can at its best benefit all parties.
– Shop steward activity aims for compromises. I also understand the employer’s perspective – I try to put myself in their shoes and remember that shop stewards must be careful in everything they do.
As a shop steward, I even understand the employer’s perspective.
Instead of focusing on small details, Huynh aims to further develop the big picture. She thinks that one must in all situations try to put oneself in the other person’s place.
– I want us to achieve a shared understanding of things as a work community. It can sometimes be challenging, not only because of cultural differences, but as long as you keep an open mind and are ready for compromises, problems can be solved. My motto is that your attitude in the morning affects whether it will be a good day.
The shop steward has her territory at the end of the nursing school. Aside from working, she’s studying remotely for a master’s degree at the University of Oulu.
Simple in principle, complicated in practice
In principle, managing a position of responsibility is simple. If an employee feels that a situation is unfair or that not everything is otherwise right, a shop steward or occupational safety and health representative will listen to them and find out what to do.
In practice, it’s a more complicated assignment. Situations require creative problem solving, good nerves and negotiation skills. Energy and motivation will take you far. Thu Huynh has fresh experience of this.
– I’m not yet very experienced, but I know where to get help, she says.
Nothing is impossible and everything will be ok.
Huynh lives in Helsinki and has been working in Taikavuori for six years. So far, the only person with a position of responsibility in Taikavuori has been the occupational safety and health representative. Huynh spares no praise for Trade Union JHL: After deciding about going for a position of responsibility, she got all the support she needed.
She can spend one hour of her weekly working time on shop steward duties.
– I’ve thought about how to make good use of that hour at this early stage. I’ll at least familiarise myself with the collective agreement with care. I’ve got plenty of questions!
You too have a chance to take up a position of responsibility. Here’s how to get started:
- Those with a position of responsibility in the workplace are shop steward and occupational safety and health representative.
- They support the employees in problematic and conflict situations.
- If a position of responsibility interests you, first contact your own branch or regional office.
- Employees elect a shop steward for 2–4 years.
- Every JHL member has the right to participate in shop steward election – or to become elected for the assignment!
- Read all about shop steward activity on JHL’s website.
The trade union can cause prejudices and dispel them
English speaking shop stewards such as Thu Huynh are worth their weight in gold to trade unions. Someone with an immigrant background may have a different first contact with another immigrant-origin person compared to a native Finn. The newcomers can then be fully integrated in the Finnish working life. This prevents groups of people from being left outside the union’s strength in numbers in the labour market.
On a global scale, the trade union movement in Finland is exceptionally strong and independent. It is by no means common to be a union member in Huynh’s native country Vietnam.
– I’d only heard the word union but never thought of it or learned what it is. Even though I joined JHL six years ago, I only learned more about it last year. Since then, I have become an active member because I really see how useful it is.
Huynh’s last workplace in Vietnam was an English-speaking day care centre. She moved to Finland seven years ago and got a candidate’s degree by completing the studies she had carried out in her native country with an internship, among other things.
In some countries it’s even dangerous to be a trade union member, and a lot of work must be done in Finland to dispel prejudices related to membership. Taikavuori has a multicultural work community. Huynh wants to spread union awareness to her co-workers.
– Many foreigners don’t know which rights they have in working life – I didn’t either. However, I believe in change and I want to be an agent in that change.
Huynh thanks JHL for heading in the right direction when it comes to receiving foreigners: There’s already quite a lot of union information available in English. It’s a good start – while not everyone speaks English, many do.
Thu Huynh completed level B1 in the Finnish language in a year in 2019. – I’ve regretted not studying the language actively since then, but better late than never!
Tight-knit team is able to make compromises
The lack of resources within day care has been stirring up emotions in the Finnish society for a long time. There’s frequent overtime work, a continuous shortage of employees, the pay is not enough to live on, and the sector is also not attracting new employees. That also puts those with a position of responsibility in a tight spot. Thu Huynh feels that a fair pay must be paid for work. On the other hand, money isn’t everything, and few people are happy with their salary no matter how much they earn.
A close-knit team helps Huynh in her work. Taikavuori is no more immune to the difficult situation in the sector than other nursery schools. As a workplace however, it is well liked. Not a single permanent employee has left the place during Thu Huynh’s six years of employment.
What’s the secret of Taikavuori? According to Huynh, the co-workers are on the same wavelength in the work community. Huynh says that the personnel recently had a meeting where they talked about how much they enjoy working in Taikavuori.
– We know how to make compromises. If one of us is upset for some reason, the others aim to understand why: they’re having a bad day and that’s ok. We move on instead of dwelling in mistakes. No workplace is perfect, but this workplace is unique.
Despite the sector’s challenges, Huynh regards the Finnish day care centre system and the entire society as exceptional. Although many foreign professionals within the care and education sector head for work to, say, Norway or Sweden out of a desire for better earnings, Huynh isn’t going anywhere. Last summer she became a Finnish citizen.
– Nothing is impossible and everything will be ok – that is my core value.
In Finland, Thu Huynh has become more extroverted than before. – I work, study, play badminton and skate every day in the winter. I think my work-life balance is perfect.
Born in 1992
Hails from Da Nang, a coastal city in Mid-Vietnam.
Previous jobs include customer service within tourism in hotels, marketing and as a tour guide; worked in an international day care centre in Da Nang before moving to Finland
Hobbies Music, sports, travelling and languages; speaks five languages and ice-skates seven days a week (in the winter)
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