Self-Defense for International Researchers
The traditional labor union slogan “know your rights” is still topical also in the university sector. All too often, university staff members and grant researchers remain unaware of their rights and have little knowledge of the kinds of action they are entitled to take when problems arise. Sometimes they may even be purposefully kept in the dark about such matters, which may expose them to exploitation that goes undetected. For foreign researchers arriving in Finland such problems are often acute, as their situation is further aggravated by the linguistic barrier. This is an area where the Trade Union can step in and offer its help.
One of the principal lines of action of the new FUURT coordination group for international researchers is precisely to reach out and provide direct advise to the prospective audience. The groundwork is performed through practical information sessions, which are designed to provide the international researchers with the necessary knowledge of their rights as academic professionals and as full members of the Finnish academic community. In practice, this means telling the people how they can best fend for themselves and who are the parties they can rely on.
These sessions, known as “Academic Self-Defense Courses”, have already been organized in English at the University of Tampere, and comparable events have also been arranged in Helsinki. The new FUURT coordination group aims to make these sessions nationwide. Two Self-Defense Courses were organized for the international researchers at the University of Eastern Finland in March, both at the Joensuu and Kuopio campuses. The key role in the organization of both sessions was played by a local researcher and a member of the FUURT coordination group, the sociologist Marta Choroszewicz. The content was produced by the local chief shop steward Antero Puhakka in cooperation with the Union representative Riku Matilainen and the lawyer Mia Weckman.
Both sessions were successful, and revealed a definite need for practical information within the international community. Approximately forty people attended both sessions. The overwhelming majority of the participants were early-stage professional researchers working on their doctoral theses, both salaried employees and people working on a grant. There were also people whose work was, at the moment, without funding and who therefore were out of work. A slight majority of the participants in Kuopio were salaried employees and members of the university staff, whereas in Joensuu the distribution was more even. Consequently, during the Kuopio session, information on work-related rights and the duties of shop steward were emphasized, whereas in Joensuu many researchers also required knowledge on their rights regarding social security. Since this data is not always provided by the authorities in simple, easily accessible English-language packages, the Union did its best to fill in the gaps within this area.
Most importantly, the sessions also provided the Union with an opportunity to glean information on the various problems which are characteristic to foreign researchers. Residence permits, visas and other bureaucratic subtleties pertaining to immigrant status are a constant source of problems to those international academic professionals who have settled in Finland from outside the EU. The prevalence of short, fixed-term contracts particularly among early- stage researchers often leads to the accumulation of problems. Even in those situations where the contract will almost certainly be renewed or a new grant will probably be received, the official uncertainty of labor situation makes the renewal of visas and residence permits a redundant and recurring practice. The structural category of non-citizens is regrettable reality also among the foreign researchers, and in the eyes of the public authorities, academic professionals are inevitably in separate categories depending on whether they have arrived from the EU or non-EU countries.
Discussion at both sessions was very vivid, and the participants were bursting with questions, which were met with quick, professional and effective answers from the Union representatives. One especially significant issue in the sessions was to familiarize the international researchers with the Finnish shop steward system and services. Unawareness of the intricacies of the Finnish labor practices often makes foreign researchers reluctant to seek the assistance of their shop steward. In some cases this seems to be due to the fear that consulting the union representative would label people as troublemakers in the eyes of the employer. Antero Puhakka stressed the role of the shop steward as an advisor and a mediator who has professional relations with the university staff, who knows the ropes and who can provide invaluable help to the members of the university community. The availability of the shop steward services alone provides a good incentive for international researchers to join the Union.
The Self-Defense Courses will continue as a regular practice also in other universities across the country. New sessions are planned for the coming autumn in Jyväskylä and Helsinki. With the number of international researchers on the increase, it is important to get in direct touch with prospective members and foster activity among the emerging international communities in the Finnish universities.
text Jussi Jalonen