30,000 Finns protest over austerity drive

Tens of thousands of people demonstrating at the Central Railway Station in Helsinki, Finland, yesterday. They were against government measures that they say would hit the weakest earners the hardest.
Tens of thousands of people demonstrating at the Central Railway Station in Helsinki, Finland, yesterday. They were against government measures that they say would hit the weakest earners the hardest.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Nationwide strike brings part of Finland to a halt as essential services are shut down

HELSINKI • Around 30,000 people demonstrated in Helsinki yesterday against the Finnish govern-ment's harsh austerity measures, as a strike shut down the country's public transport, postal and harbour services, and some domestic flights.

Huge crowds braved a thunderstorm to join the protest in a central Helsinki square at midday, in a festive atmosphere with balloons and pop music blaring from speakers.

"No way!" read posters carried by some demonstrators, whom organisers and police both estimated at around 30,000.

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila last week announced plans to revive the euro zone member's economy after three years of recession, including cutting back holidays, reducing pensioners' housing allowances and slashing employees' overtime and Sunday pay.

"The Finnish state has contracted debt at a rate of almost a million euros per hour for seven years, day and night, every day of the week. We cannot continue like this," Mr Sipila said in a rare televised address on Wednesday.

He has insisted the plan is "indispensable" to increase productivity by reducing labour costs, describing Finland's economic situation as "exceptionally serious".

But many protesters complained that the government's measures would hit the weakest earners the hardest. "Some cuts could be acceptable, but it's not fair that they only affect a specific group of people," said Ms Sanna Aalto, 24, a nurse, referring to low-income public-sector shift workers such as herself.

Because of the strike, some 400,000 people who regularly use trains, trams, metros or buses in the Finnish capital had to find other ways to get around, many of them cycling, walking or staying home.

Finnair said it had cancelled 15 domestic flights, while domestic ferry traffic, harbour and postal services were interrupted.

A few schoolswere closed, and the police were operating with minimum staffing.

Finland, once a top performer in the euro zone, has seen its economy crumble under the effects of its rapidly ageing population and declines in key sectors of its economy such as forestry and technology.

But a surprising number of Finns were in favour of the cuts.

A poll by tabloid Iltalehti last week showed that more than 70 per cent of over 1,000 respondents were fully or partly in favour of the cuts, including more than 20 per cent who said the measures were insufficient.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline '30,000 Finns protest over austerity drive'. Print Edition | Subscribe