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Committee on Economic, Social And Cultural Rights discusses the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in its dialogue with Finland

19 February 2021

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded today its review of the seventh periodic report of Finland on measures taken to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 

Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, Committee Experts asked the delegation to comment on the impact of the emergency measures on economic, social and cultural rights, notably how they affected minority groups, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  What was the practice of Finland to share its resources related to vaccination with other countries that lacked resources?  Would Finland support the proposal to waiver intellectual property rights to facilitate the access to vaccines in the Global South?

The Finnish delegation said that, jointly with the President of the Republic, the Government had declared that Finland was in emergency conditions, and introduced the Emergency Powers Act on 16 March 2020.  The purpose of the Act was to protect the population and to secure its livelihood and the national economy, to maintain the legal order and fundamental and human rights, and to safeguard the territorial integrity and independence of the State in emergency conditions.  After the epidemiological situation improved, the emergency conditions were lifted on 15 June 2020.

The delegation of Finland noted that COVID-19 restrictions caused loneliness and fear, and communicated accordingly, including in sign language and Braille.  It should be noted that these restrictions had limited the spread of the disease, thus contributing to the protection of rights.  Early childhood education and care services had not closed, despite the recommendation to keep children at home whenever possible.  Schools had closed in the spring but reopened mid-May; however, the access of migrant pupils to in-person education had been maintained.  Studies had shown that distant-learning had had a small, if uneven impact on pupils.  Thanks to the measures taken, Finland had managed to keep the epidemiological situation at a reasonably good level.  Information on COVID-19 was available in many languages, including in sign language and Braille.  Moreover, during the pandemic, public authorities had had a dialogue with, for instance, disability organizations, and studied the impacts of the pandemic on the Roma population.  On the intellectual property rights waiver for the vaccine, Finland was bound by the decisions made by the European Union, as well as the Union’s contractual agreements.

Committee Experts also requested information on efforts made by the Government of Finland to meet the objective of reaching the official development assistance target level of 0.7 per cent as a proportion of gross national income; the employment rights of wild berry pickers; austerity measures in Finland; regional disparities in the provision of mental health services, notably as regard youth and children; policies to reduce carbon emissions; and steps to protect Sami reindeer husbandry.

In his concluding remarks, Mikel Mancisidor, Committee Rapporteur for Finland, said the dialogue had been frank and competent, despite the challenges related to the online format.  He thanked the delegation.

Krista Oinonen, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, thanking the Committee, said the experience had been positive.  The Committee had asked several relevant questions, and she hoped the delegation’s responses reflected Finland’s sound commitment to human rights and the implementation of the Convention.

Michael Windfuhr, Committee Chairperson, expressed gratitude on behalf of the Committee.

The delegation of Finland consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public at 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 23 February to review the second periodic report of Latvia (E/C.12/LVA/2)

Report

The Committee has before it the seventh periodic report of Finland (E/C.12/FIN/7).

Opening Remarks

RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Committee Chairperson, welcoming the Finnish delegation, recalled that the Committee had coordinated with the Human Rights Committee to prepare this dialogue, as Finland would appear before the latter in a few weeks.

Presentation of the Report

KRISTA OINONEN, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, thanked the Committee for organising this virtual hearing in the current exceptional circumstances, adding that Finland found the simplified reporting procedure a very positive development.  One clear cross-cutting objective in the Government Programme of Prime Minister Sanna Marin's Government was to promote the realization of human rights in Finland.  The Government pledged to build a Finland that was tolerant, equitable and committed to a rules-based human rights system, and was preparing the third National Action Plan on Fundamental and Human Rights.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Finland in spring last year, the Government took rapid measures.  Jointly with the President of the Republic, the Government declared that Finland was in emergency conditions, and introduced the Emergency Powers Act on 16 March 2020.  The purpose of the Act was to protect the population and to secure its livelihood and the national economy, to maintain the legal order and fundamental and human rights, and to safeguard the territorial integrity and independence of the State in emergency conditions.  After the epidemiological situation improved, the emergency conditions were lifted on 15 June 2020.

Efforts had been made to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and to ensure the capacity of the healthcare system by means of different restrictions, such as quarantines, facial mask recommendations, hygiene guidelines and stricter restrictions on entry into the country.  Furthermore, the Government had taken supportive measures to alleviate the economic consequences of the pandemic.  Thanks to the measures taken, Finland had managed to keep the epidemiological situation at a reasonably good level.  Information on COVID-19 was available in many languages, including in sign language and Braille.  Moreover, during the pandemic, public authorities had had a dialogue with, for instance, disability organizations, and studied the impacts of the pandemic on the Roma population. 

During the current government term, the Non-Discrimination Act would be partially reformed.  Compulsory education in Finland would be extended starting from August this year.  The aim of the extension was to raise the age of compulsory education to 18 years and to extend compulsory education to upper secondary education, thus improving conditions for learning and wellbeing among young people and increasing their employment rate.  In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government was making efforts both to support the ability of companies to continue to employ people and to help the re-employment of those who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic.  Improvements would be made to employment services, such as lifelong counselling and guidance, to support rapid employment.  Particular efforts would be made to improve employment among those in the weakest labour market position, for instance persons with partial working capacity, migrants, and young and aged people.

The Government Programme included many initiatives and measures that specifically targeted gender inequality, such as an equal pay programme and a parental leave reform.  The Government had launched a comprehensive social security reform that aimed at a clearer and more streamlined system, where people could balance work and social security in changing life situations.  Other important legislative reforms were underway: a healthcare and social welfare reform package, a partial reform of the Act on Client Charges in Health and Social Services, and a reform of the Act on Supporting the Functional Capacity of the Older Population and on Social and Health Services for Older Persons.  The Act on Services and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities, legislation on clients and patients' right of self-determination, and the so-called Trans Act would also be reformed.

Questions by Country Rapporteur

MIKEL MANCISIDOR, Committee Rapporteur for Finland, noting that those participating in this review were connecting across 16 hours of time difference, thanked the Finnish delegation.

Turning to COVID-19, he asked the delegation to comment on the impact of the emergency measures on economic, social and cultural rights, notably how they affected minority groups, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  What was the practice of Finland to share its resources related to vaccination with other countries that lacked resources?  The greatest possible flexibility was needed to ensure the vaccines reached all the corners of the world.

Mr. Mancisidor asked how the third National Action Plan on Fundamental and Human Rights would integrate economic, social and cultural rights.  How would the Government ensure due diligence with regards to the obligations of multinational companies in the field of human rights?  Could the delegation provide more information on how complaints could be brought forward by third-party individuals?  

Noting that the Government had said that the Sámi people had a seat at the table on matters such as climate change, the Country Rapporteur requested information on the position of the Government on the critical views expressed by the Sámi Parliament, and remedial measures it was considering.  He also asked if any members of the Sámi Parliament were part of the delegation.  If not, was that not a missed opportunity?

Mr. Mancisidor, hailing the constitutional status of the Covenant in the country, inquired if there were cases in the high courts in which the Covenant was cited in rulings or decisions.  He also asked about efforts made by the Government to meet the objective of reaching the official development assistance target level of 0.7 per cent as a proportion of gross national income.

Answers by the Delegation

Members of the delegation said the Covenant was well integrated in the national legislation, and enforced by a decree.  Human rights conventions had the status of constitutional acts in the hierarchy of statutes; they were binding under the dualistic system.  However, it was more common for rulings to cite the domestic legislation, which was more detailed, than the international treaty from which it stemmed.

On Finland’s official development aid targets, delegates explained that it should stand at 0.52 per cent and 0.49 per cent in 2021 and 2022, respectively. 

COVID-19 had been largely managed through the Communicable Disease Act, but it had also been necessary to resort to emergency powers.  The possibility to derogate human rights was limited to the most serious military crisis.  Emergency measures were moderate compared to other European countries.  On sharing vaccination resources with developing countries, Finland was bound by the European Union procedure and the related mechanism, which it strongly supported.

The Government acknowledged that COVID-19 restrictions caused loneliness and fear, and communicated accordingly, including in sign language and Braille.  It should be noted that these restrictions had limited the spread of the disease, thus contributing to the protection of rights.  Early childhood education and care services had not closed, despite the recommendation to keep children at home whenever possible.  Schools had closed in the spring but reopened mid-May; however, the access of migrant pupils to in-person education had been maintained.  Studies had shown that distant-learning had had a small, if uneven impact on pupils.

On refugee rights, delegates stressed that COVID-19 had not affected the right to seek asylum even though only 1,300 applications had been made in 2020.  This reflected well the situation in the European Union, where the number of applications had also decreased in comparison with 2019.  Travel restrictions affected asylum seekers’ ability to go to Finland and seek international protection, but applications could be submitted normally.

It was possible to lodge a complaint against a Finnish company that had allegedly committed crimes abroad, the delegation confirmed.

The National Action Plan on Fundamental Rights would focus on developing indicators and would not centre on economic, social and cultural rights per se but rather rights in general.

Training on the Sámi Parliament provided by the Government had generated immense interest, notably at the local level.  There was no Sámi representative present in this dialogue because, traditionally, only Government representatives were part of Finnish delegations to treaty body meetings, even though Sámi representatives sometimes took part in international meetings related to indigenous peoples’ rights.  It was important to maintain the independence of the Sámi Parliament, delegates said.

Follow-up Questions and Answers

Committee Members asked if Finland intended to ratify International Labour Organization Convention 169.  Would Finland support the proposal to waiver intellectual property rights to facilitate the access to vaccines in the Global South?

MIKEL MANCISIDOR, Committee Rapporteur for Finland, requested further details about the oversight of the way in which companies complied with their human rights obligations.

Members of the delegation said the Government had had a very open dialogue with the forest-industry company UPM, which had said it had voluntarily agreed to comply with human rights obligations.  UPM was one of the United Nations “Global Compact Lead”.

Finland was still considering the ratification of the International Labour Organization's Convention No. 169.  While Finland kept statistics on language and country of origin, it could not gather data on any ethnic groups.  However, surveys had been used to assess the situation of minority groups, including the Sámi people.

On the intellectual property rights waiver, Finland was bound by the decisions made by the European Union, as well as the Union’s contractual agreements.

Questions by Committee Experts 

Underlining that the Youth Guarantee programme was a laudable initiative, Committee Experts asked the delegation to provide information on the State budget cuts and their impact on this scheme, as well as on challenges faced by the related One Stop Guidance Centres. 

They requested information on the activation rate of job seekers with disabilities, including the procedure of keeping records; the employment rate of people with disabilities compared to the rest of the population; and the strategy to eliminate the barriers to their employment such as adaptation opportunities, discriminatory attitudes, fair remuneration for work and provision of reasonable accommodation. 

Answers by the Delegation 

Delegates said the One Stop Guidance Centres model required firm commitment from all stakeholders, including municipalities, which was both a strength and a weakness.  Sharing information amongst stakeholders remained a challenge.   

The COVID crisis had hit youth hard: young people often worked in most hit sectors, and had difficulty re-entering the labour market.  Youth employment was now a priority for the Government, as challenges faced at the outset of one’s career could have long-term effects.  Apprenticeships and start-up subsidies were among measures implemented by the Government.  COVID-19 recovery resources from the European Union would also be allocated to programmes targeting youth. 

Turning to business and human rights, delegates said Finland had been the first country to develop an implementation plan for the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  Studies had been conducted which showed that Finnish companies were committed to respecting human rights.  Finnish companies had also called for a more coherent European Union strategy in the field of business and human rights.  

Pointing out that budget cuts in education had taken place under the former government, delegates explained that the reforms would foster learning in the workplace and establish a funding model that would reduce the discontinuation of studies.  The recognition of previously acquired skills would also be facilitated.  Compulsory education would be expanded to include upper secondary education, and attendance would be mandatory up to the age of 18. 

On youth employment, delegates said the Ministry of Education provided services at the local level for youth under the age of 29, including those who were excluded from education or working life.  Additional funds had been directed to this programme in the face of the pandemic.  A majority of beneficiaries had been guided to education, employment or other services.  Workshops and other services for youth were provided in over 90 per cent of municipalities in continental Finland.  

On the employment rate of people with disabilities, the Government did not have any statistics, but data showed that about 80 per cent of people receiving part-time disability benefits were at work in December 2019.  Employers could be supported by the Government if they sought to make reasonable accommodations at the benefit of people with disabilities. 

Questions by Committee Experts

Experts sought information on the approach the State party intended to take on the issue of the pensions of persons with disabilities given the existing formula that enabled the loss of the entire pension once the earnings cap was exceeded.

Should employers not comply with salary provisions of the generally binding collective bargaining agreement with respect to foreign workers, what remedies were available to them, Experts asked.  Why was the State party not considering securing the employment rights of wild berry pickers and creating a contractual employment relationship?  

Committee Experts inquired about the status of ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and on the status of implementation of the International Labour Organization recommendation on gendered workplace violence, including the number of cases of support actions provided by employers.

Answers by the Delegation

After consideration, the Government had decided not to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, as it would not be expedient.  Migrant workers were not treated differently from other migrants; they were protected by relevant Finnish and European laws. 

On the earning formula used for the pensions of people with disabilities, delegates said the Government had developed a formula that would be updated in real time, aiming to abolish poverty traps.  The Government's proposal on this matter would be sent to parliament in 2022.  In implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Government would seek to facilitate the combination of social security and work.  It also organized activities for persons with disabilities who were not in employment to maintain their abilities.  To dismantle the traditional division of labour, the Government was striving to implement an intersectional approach and change the tripartite process regarding the equal pay programme. 

It was the employer’s duty to take care of the safety and health of employees in the work environment.  Failing that, employees could be considered as victims of human trafficking.  A national telephone service was in place to provide information on employment.  Information provided by employees through this service could trigger investigations by authorities.  While the Government did not have any statistics on underemployment, it issued guidance and written warnings, and also filed reports with police on matters related to alleged discrimination.

Finland had started the process of ratifying International Labour Organization Convention No.  190 on violence and harassment (2019).  Ultimately, ratification would depend on the relevant decisions of the European Commission.  The application of ILO Recommendation 206, concerning the elimination of violence at work, was also pending.

Social assistance as a whole would be reformed, and in that context human rights aspects, including the recommendations of the European Committee of Social Rights, would be thoroughly examined, the delegation said.

All collective agreements covered migrant workers, irrespective of the worker’s membership in a trade union.  On the criminalization of excessively low pay, this proposal had been discussed, but it seemed that it would not be put in place.  Administrative sanctions could be considered instead.  Victims had access to remedies, such as help from labour inspectors, trade unions, and courts.  Special procedures were in place for discrimination issues. 

Wild berry pickers preferred to work as entrepreneurs because of the tax-related benefits they drew from this status, delegates said.  The Government would improve their working conditions by preparing a bill on this matter that would enshrine their rights and address a range of issues.

Questions by Committee Experts

Experts sought clarification about austerity measures in Finland, and recalled that such an approach was detrimental to the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living.

MIKEL MANCISIDOR, Committee Rapporteur for Finland, asked about “the clear gender segregation in the Finnish labour market” mentioned in the report.

Social security benefits should contribute to the guarantee of human rights, notably the right to an adequate standard of living for all, Experts stressed.  How was the State party ensuring this was the case?  How was it tackling carbon emissions?  Would the law being drafted on this matter consider the human rights implications of all adaptation and mitigation measures?

Experts inquired about regional disparities in the provision of mental health services, notably as regard youth and children.  On income and exclusion, what was Finland doing to protect low-income families given the disproportionate level of taxes they faced?  Asylum-seekers, including children, did not always receive the services to which they were entitled, and the number of children in alternative care had increased.  Could the delegation comment on these matters and outline solutions envisaged?

Experts asked if the Government envisaged any new legislation or policy that would guarantee education in Sami language outside the core Sami area.  What measures was the Finish Government taking to tackle hostile attitudes towards minority and vulnerable groups?  Experts asked if steps had been taken to provide special protection for Sami reindeer husbandry given the centrality of that means of livelihood to the culture of the Sami people.

Answers by the Delegation

Delegates said plans were underway to create a regional cooperation network to make employment appealing to all genders, notably in sectors where levels of segregation were high.  Other efforts aimed at increasing pay transparency to address pay discrimination more effectively.

On social benefits, delegates said a number of them had been raised in the last few years, and social security reforms were underway.  During previous parliamentary terms, the Government had implemented austerity measures by freezing social security benefits, but some of the claims of non-governmental organizations on this issue were outdated and the situation was improving.  The level of various social security benefits, including the parental unemployment allowances, had increased in the past few years.  Individuals could also receive housing allowance that could cover up to 80 per cent of housing costs.  Basic social assistance could be provided to any individual whose income could not cover their basic needs.  Finland’s GINI coefficient had shrunk by 0.2 per cent, delegates added. 

The Government was not implementing austerity measures in reaction to the pandemic, but rather seeking to mitigate its harmful impact on business and citizens.  Finland aimed to be carbon neutral by 2035 and carbon negative after that.  There was a gap between current actions of the Government and its targets.  To address this, Finland implemented climate policies that respected human rights, such as holding consultations on the Climate Act in various languages, including three Sámi languages.  It was also reforming its energy taxation model, and drafting a national energy and climate strategy. 

There were regional differences in access to healthcare services, including mental health services, delegates said.  The Government had submitted proposals to reform this sector, aiming to reduce inequalities and improve access to services.  These efforts were in line with the Committee’s General Comment No 14.  As part of the national mental health care strategy for 2020-2030, a suicide prevention programme had been rolled out.  To address the fragmented provision of mental health care services, the Government focused on early preventive health care services, notably in schools, including by transferring funds to municipalities to hire social workers.  A national strategy on substance abuse would be launched next year.

All minors and asylum seekers, whether accompanied or not, were entitled to the same social and mental healthcare services as the residents of the municipality, including child welfare services.  The reception centres had health care professionals and social workers who monitored their health and psycho-social wellbeing.

Only when the integration of special pupils in mainstream schools was not possible was special need education provided in a special class or school.  The Right to Learn programme had been developed to reduce and prevent learning differences and gaps due to socio-economic background or gender of pupils, through, notably, the strengthening of neighbourhood schools and childcare services.

Together with the Sami Parliament, the Government has launched a distance learning programme for the Sami language in Finland.  Thanks to a revitalization programme launched in 2014, progress had been made in developing the Sami language nest activities.  There were 12 Sami language nests; the Government had been increasingly supporting them, including by contributing to the provision of education material.

The Government had launched a campaign against hate speech on social media for young people.  Another campaign would encourage a greater presence of minorities in the media.  The problem of attacks and hate speech in politics was not ignored.  Special attention would be paid to the situation of the Roma, against whom attacks were on the rise.  Finally, several ministers recently spoke on television against hate speech that targeted the Sami people. 

Amendments to the reindeer husbandry legislation provided for legal protection of stakeholders in the context of disputes related to damages created by reindeers.  A new independent Board would be created to settle such disputes; its members would have expertise in Sami culture.  A process was underway for the Government to pay compensation to reindeer owners for losses suffered because of the exceptional snow conditions from last year.

Closing Remarks

MIKEL MANCISIDOR, Committee Rapporteur for Finland, said the dialogue had been frank and competent, despite the challenges related to the online format.  He thanked the delegation.

KRISTA OINONEN, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, thanking the Committee, said the experience had been positive.  The Committee had asked several relevant questions, and she hoped the delegation’s responses reflected Finland’s sound commitment to human rights and the implementation of the Convention.

MICHAEL WINDFUHR, Committee Chairperson, expressed gratitude on behalf of the Committee.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/02/committee-economic-social-and-cultural-rights-discusses-effects

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For use of the information media; not an official record