Finnish officers’ unions want more time off to ease soldiers’ family life

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Unions representing military personnel in Finland have criticised the defence forces’ working time practices as incompatible with modern family life.

Sailors in Finland want more time off to rest and recuperate, as well as take care of their families, as unions representing them say current practices in the forces are not fit for purpose. In one case a naval officer was either at sea or on two hours’ notice to leave, for nine weeks without time off.

That can mean that agreed social events are skipped, children miss their hobbies and the sacred Finnish ritual of the summer cottage weekend becomes impossible. The Institute Officers Union, the Officers Union and the Finnish Non-Commissioned Officers Union, who between them represent almost all professional soldiers in the Finnish military, are demanding an update to the law covering working time in the military.

Yle went to speak to naval officers in south-west Finland and found that the strain of working time in the military has shown in higher rates of marital breakdown.

Commander Andres Aaramo said that on one vessel, some 60 percent of the 30 crew divorced their partners over a two-year period. Commander Klaus Ericsson says that it’s not okay these days for spouses to be continually at sea while the partner at home has to take care of all domestic tasks.

“In the worst year I was at sea for more than 150 days,” said Ericsson. “A really large proportion of those were unplanned. I am myself divorced, and in my opinion one reason for that is that I was away from home for such long spells.”

Jyrki Lukkarinen of the Officers’ Union says that it’s difficult for families to live on two hours’ notice of departure, when daycare and after-school clubs need to be arranged well in advance.

“There’s an illustrative saying that a person who is in the navy and working on a ship isn’t there alone, but has their family and neighbours along too,” said Lukkarinen.

Tenser Baltic Sea situation affects officers’ hours

The rule of thumb is that during military exercises and when at sea a working day will last 16-18 hours but is marked down as official working time of just eight hours. The remaining hours are paid, but don’t bring time in lieu for rest and recuperation, according to the unions.

Sailors have borne the brunt of efforts to step up vigilance as the military and security situation in the Baltic Sea becomes tenser. Officers’ Union chair Ville Viita says that the biggest problems are in the navy, where sick leaves are in his opinion on the rise.

Viita says that work-life balance issues also affect the working environment, and his union points out there’s also a shortage of officers. He worries that there’s now a risk that the military’s capacity to defend the country could be endangered.

“The amount of work and the pace of it have increased,” said Viita.

Ministry: Current laws work

Parliament is currently considering changes to the working time law, but that does not affect professional soldiers. Their terms of work are defined by a separate working time law.

“The current working time law is very old, from 1970 and signed by President [Urho] Kekkonen,” said Lukkarinen of the Institute Officers Union. “The law does not in any way meet our needs for modern working time protections. The old law’s conditions don’t help our wellbeing or recovery.”

According to the Finance Ministry, under whose purview the legislation falls, the current law has shown itself to work as the current restrictions don’t prevent wartime operational readiness during peacetime.

The unions point out that in Sweden and Norway soldiers are covered by general working time regulations, and in Finland the police get those protections. According to the unions, that ensures police get enough free time and prevents them doing huge, uncontrolled amounts of overtime.

Aaramo offers as an example an officer who was at sea for almost half a year. He accumulated around 200 hours of overtime because he was at work for several weekends when he should have been off.

“If you count according to the actual hours he put in, that is 16-hour days, then he did well over a thousand hours of overtime in a year,” said Aaramo. “That sounds like quite a lot.”

The Officers and Institute Officers unions demand that working time for soldiers at sea and doing military exercises be raised from the current eight hours per day to 12 hours per day. That would cost some 3.5 million euros, according to the unions.

“We’re not after monetary compensation,” says Ericsson. “We want personnel to have sufficient time for rest and recuperation.”

The Finance Ministry says that it does not yet have a view on changing the law, and there will not be time to form one before new parliamentary elections due in the spring.

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