Pam Magazine: A Master at School
Zuzeeko Abeng moved to Finland and found work at a school. Now he writes about how he was treated, his attempts to find help and what he learned in the process.
I moved to Finland – my girlfriend's country – in 2009. I had just completed a Master’s Degree in international human rights law at Lund University, Sweden. I met my girlfriend while I was a student. How we met is another story.
I lived in Helsinki and had to apply for a job as a cleaner, as so many foreign university graduates whom I know do. In the beginning of 2010, a friend of mine introduced me to Super Moon Cleaning – a cleaning company. He warned me that working at SMC is challenging, but I desperately needed work. I got a job at the company after a few long, unpaid "training" days.
My cleaning area was in a school in Espoo. I had 5 hours to clean about 11 classrooms. There was a lot of work. I soon realized that I just did not have enough time to do everything. I informed the employer that I needed more time. He said that if I could not do the work in the given time, he would find someone who could. He also said that I was slow and that I had to clean faster, if I wanted to keep my job. A few weeks later, I complained again. I was allocated more time: 30 minutes, but only on Fridays, although the cleaning area was the same all the time.
I listened to my Chinese colleagues complain every day. But I, a master of human rights law, could not help them or myself. I still think that I let them down. One of them spoke only Chinese. I do not know how my employer communicated with him. I do not remember his name, but I remember that he was hardworking. He was at work when I arrived and when I left for home. Our supervisors checked the quality of our work regularly and always forced us to redo work. We started at 2 p.m. and sometimes left the workplace at midnight or later.
One Friday, I arrived home from work after 11 p.m. It was 7th of May 2.5 years ago. I was expecting the birth of my first child and I was looking forward to the weekend, but the employer had a different idea. He called me that night and said that I must go to work the next day. He wanted me to redo my work because, according to him, I had cleaned badly. According to my contract, Saturday was not a working day. I reminded him about the contract, but he said I must go to work.
I went to work, but I took two people with me to bear witness that I had done a good job. The employer ordered me to redo my work, but I did not agree. He immediately fired me, without warning. According to the termination notice, the customer had complained ‘repeatedly’ about my work. I had never heard of any complaint about my work. I had been employed for 4 months and my 3-month test period had terminated.
At the time I was not a member of a union. However, I thought that there is another way to get legal aid. I started a useless search.
I wrote a complaint in English to the City of Espoo, the school's rector and the Regional Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the treatment of workers at SMC. I also applied for legal aid from the Helsinki Region Legal Aid Office. I did not get help.
A lawyer at the City of Espoo wrote me an e-mail at the end of May and said that the City of Espoo is taking my complaint seriously. But he also said that they have very limited means to check complaints about violations of collective agreements.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration handled my case and issued a statement 2 years ago in August, but only about the day my employment started. According to the occupational safety and health inspector, I had been at work 2 days without salary. The labour inspectorate did not handle the termination issue. Neither did the legal aid office.
The school rector met me, read my complaint and said that unfortunately he cannot help. But he had something for me, something I did not expect. He gave me my first Finnish language book: ‘Suomea Suomeksi 1. He recommended that I should start studying Finnish. I have done so ever since. His advice was the best thing that I got from my whole cleaning experience and my search for legal aid.
Zuzeeko T. Abeng
You can also read: A company in the Shadows
Country of birth: Republic of Cameroon.
Family: Wife and two children.
Education: Master’s Degree, International Human Rights Law, Lund University.
Work history: Has worked as a cleaner, and has been a trainee at the human rights organisation Amnesty and the Service Union United PAM.
Current work situation: Unemployed jobseeker.
Facts about employment
Trial period: A trial period no longer than four months is allowed at the start of the employment contract. The period may be shorter than this, if so agreed. During the trial period, both employee and employer can terminate the employment on valid grounds, with no period of notice.
Period of notice: The amount of advance notice that must be given before the termination of employment. The employee will continue to work and be paid during the period of notice. If your employment contract is less than a year old, the period of notice is 14 days. The period of notice will be lengthened as your employment continues.
Giving notice: An employer can give notice to an employee if the employee has neglected or violated his or her duties. Nevertheless, the employee must first be afforded the opportunity to rectify his or her mistake by being cautioned, and the employee must be heard before he or she is given notice. Employees have the right to counsel in such situations. Employees can also be given notice if the company is experiencing financial difficulties, or is reorganising its operations. The period of notice must be respected when giving notice. An employee is under no obligation to justify his or her actions if the employee is resigning of his or her own volition.
Termination of employment: An employment contract can be dissolved with no period of notice if the employee has violated his or her duties in such a serious manner that the employer cannot be required to continue the employment contract, even for the duration of the period of notice. An employee must be heard before his or her employment is terminated, and he or she has the right to counsel.
Help from PAM: If the employee is a member of PAM, he or she can contact a shop steward or PAM's regional office, in the case of a disagreement regarding his or her employment contract. The shop steward or office will then try to clarify the matter and resolve it by negotiation with the employer. If the matter cannot be resolved through negotiation, the employee has the right to legal aid. In most cases, only an employee who has been a member of PAM for six months or more is entitled to legal aid.
State legal aid: Finnish residents of limited means are entitled to legal aid from the State. Legal aid is not granted for all cases, however.
Occupational safety authorities: These authorities ensure that work is carried out safely. They conduct inspections and issue orders to employers. If an employer fails to comply with such an order, it may be subjected to a penalty fine. The occupational safety authorities can issue instructions and advice to employees and employers regarding the supervision of employment terms. They can also report offences to the police.
Information regarding the help provided by PAM: pam.fi/fi/tyo
Information on legal aid: oikeus.fi
Information on occupational safety: avi.fi/fi/tyosuojelu
Information on employment contracts: In English guidetoworkinginfinland.fi