The seminar about possibly including volunteer work in the active model, organized by Citizen Forum and the Finnish Parliament’s Support Group for Volunteer Work, was attended by 86 interested participants. Anne Kalmari (Centre Party), the chairperson of the Support Group for Volunteer Work, gave the opening remarks.

– The Support Group for Volunteer Work has discussed the fact that volunteering should be recognized and acknowledged better. One can volunteer without losing social benefits, such as unemployment benefits. Expenditure payments would be tax free when volunteering. Employees of organizations know the best what would be a smart model. We should also critically evaluate the possibility and make sure that volunteer work will not replace paid employment.

Marjaana Maisonlahti, the Ministerial Adviser of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, states that the active model was the first item implemented from the “top-ten list” of increasing employment. According to her, it was known from the beginning, that if everyone fulfils the criteria of the active model, government expenditure increases. The first monitoring period has ended and according to preliminary information, benefits will be cut.

– Women have fulfilled the activity requirement more often than men, and young more often than elderly have. In May we will start getting decisions and in July we will know more about the whole second quarter.

Maisonlahti brought up the importance of defining volunteer work: it is work done to benefit communities and individuals without obligation. Paid employment accumulates the work requirement, while volunteer work as of now does not. Maisonlahti states that volunteering should at least be like a project that has a beginning and an end.

According to Tiina Korhonen, Senior Ministerial Adviser of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, unemployment rates are falling in all areas. TE Offices have received many questions about the active model, but the employees have not always known the answers or have not had time to respond to all of them.

The panelists were quite unanimous regarding volunteering as a part of the active model

The panelists of the discussion event were Martti Talja (Centre Party), Arto Satonen (National Coalition Party), Sirpa Paatero (Social Democratic Party), Rami Lehto (Finns Party), Kaj Turunen (Blue Reform), Heli Järvinen (Green League), and Jari Myllykoski (Left Alliance).

According to Martti Talja, the active model aims to bridge the gap between the conflict of receiving and creating employment, which is not always encouraging.

– Fixing this is more important than including volunteering in the active model. Volunteer work is still needed in some situations. For example, volunteer work like the structured trained friend activities for the Finnish Red Cross should be included in the model, says Talja.

Arto Satonen mentioned that his opinion on utilizing volunteering is positive per se. It is, however, difficult to define and monitor volunteer work. There should be a clear agreement about where the volunteer work occurs and who supervises it. Satonen thinks that the first goal is still to increase the number of employed people.

Sirpa Paatero thinks that there shouldn’t be a stick-and-carrot model like the active model.  If the government is not willing to change the current legislation, Paatero states that courses at adult education centers and volunteer work should be included in the model.

Rami Lehto also added that the Finns Party does not support the active model. Nevertheless, since it is in use, he thinks that volunteering should be included in the model.

– For example, a former alcoholic who can’t find a job, could work as a peer supporter and fill the requirements of the model that way. Volunteer work should be included in the active model. The challenge is, however, that people, who are not suitable or capable, are forced to volunteer.

Kaj Turunen thinks that this is not a simple matter, but in principle, he feels positive about including volunteering in the model.

– If people seeking to fulfil the activity requirements start volunteering, does it take something away from those, who volunteer for other reasons, asks Turunen.

Heli Järvinen is not only a second term representative for the Green League; she is also the Vice Chairperson of the Employment Committee. She has trained unemployed people and been unemployed herself.

– The active model is the most incomprehensible decision during my career as a representative! It is demeaning and drives the unemployed to apply for disability pension as a last resource. The TE Office should offer all unemployed people services. Volunteering should definitely be accepted if you can’t find a job and don’t get service from the TE Office.

Jari Myllykoski also brought up the people who already volunteer: how will they take it if this new group is forced to join in?

Leo Stranius, the Executive Director of Citizen Forum, asked the panelists when the situation would be resolved. Arto Satonen answered that it would happen in connection with the social welfare and healthcare reform. Jari Myllykoski answered: when the bill comes or at the latest after the next election. Heli Järvinen pointed out how the active model had to be rushed through despite the objections of experts, but all of a sudden, the corrections require a long time.

The panelists were also asked to provide concrete examples of the kind of volunteer work that could be included in the active model. The following answers were given: The activities should be goal-oriented and the volunteers should be committed. Someone has to supervise the volunteering. An organization is generally needed for verifying the activities.

On the other hand, the panel talked about rating and appraising volunteer work: for example, is volunteering with a large organization more valuable than starting your own association? Will volunteering become the means for free labor? Then, choosing the volunteers should also be voluntary for organizations.

Heli Järvinen added that 20 % of unemployed people need services other than employment, education, or volunteering.

– If there is no work or services, then all different kinds of self-imposed activities should be included in the active model. For example, learning skills through making a skateboarding video or working on a thesis should be enough to show activity.

The audience also asked questions. They brought up what a narrow impression there is about volunteer work. If we are stuck on the idea that a big organization like the Finnish Red Cross should be the provider of volunteer work, we are stuck in the past. The voice of the unemployed should also be heard.

– It is a civil right to participate and volunteer. How will politics stay out of it and not regulate it? Asked Laura Hakokangas from the Helsinki Deaconess Institute.

According to the panelists, we will know more by fall. Unemployed people will also be heard. Civil society is open and it must be possible to do almost anything as long as the activity is goal-oriented. Moreover, all volunteer work should be rated as equal, but volunteering which is included in the active model could not be done at home alone.

Text: Katja Reinikainen, photo: Aino Kostiainen

Translation: Satu Puolitaival