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07.10.2022 08:01

Decent work promotes equality and combats poverty

President Tarja Halonen is an honorary member of PAM and at the start of the millennium was involved in establishing the UN’s goal of safe and equal work for all that provides adequate income. That is still a long way off, however, even in Finland.

Presidentti Tarja Halonen toimii aktiivisesti erityisesti kestävään kehitykseen

President Tarja Halonen, 78, welcomes us to her office and we go through the entrance lobby to the bright meeting room.  

Honorary positions in numerous organisations and networks both in Finland and internationally have kept the president busy since her second term ended in 2012. Halonen is especially active in issues around sustainable development, equality and peace mediation.  

The globe-shaped badge that the president wears is also a reminder of this. This symbolises the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the aim of which is to eradicate extreme poverty from the world and safeguard wellbeing for the environment in a sustainable manner by 2030.  

Decent work is part of sustainable development

Tarja Halonen has also left her own mark on the Sustainable Development Goals. At the start of the millennium, there was a growing awareness at many levels of society that international labour markets and the free movement of capital had radically altered the terms of employment. Some workers benefited from the expansion of labour markets, but for many it meant impaired working conditions and less security.  

Halonen co-chaired the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation of the UN’s labour organisation, the ILO. She actively lobbied for work to be recognised as a key factor affecting people’s lives, society and equitable development.  

This is not a minor issue because the terms on which work is done also play a key role in eradicating poverty. When workers’ wages are enough to get nutritious food, accommodation and provide for their families, poverty goes down.  

The work of the World Commission created the basis for the ILO adopting the concept of decent work.  

“We were looking for a word that would express fairness.” 

Decent work means safe work that safeguards adequate income, does not discriminate against anyone and also respects the right to establish trade unions and to be members of them. Decent work is also a key concept from the perspective of equal opportunities, the environment and peace.  

Decent work became part of the UN’s Millennium Goals and the subsequent Agenda 2030. Leading the ILO’s working group also raised Halonen’s international profile. 

“We accomplished our mission in three years. This has been my most positive experience of working in an international commission”, she says. 


Towards more equal working conditions   

In her career in politics and internationally, Halonen has paved the way for all women to aim for leading positions in society. She was the first female lawyer at SAK, the first female minister of justice, foreign minister and president.  

Tarja Halonen calculates that in total she has been involved in working life for half a century.  

“The most significant change in working life during my career has been that women’s rights have become human rights issues”, she says without hesitation. 

When Halonen graduated as a lawyer and began her working career in the late 1960s as the social affairs secretary of the National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL), working women provided a welcome boost to family finances and gave women opportunities. At the same time it was taken for granted that working should not detract from the family and caring for loved ones. 

“Women had a double work burden. That was the case for me in my own home.” 

Her parents were trade union activists and breathed a sigh of relief when their daughter Tarja went from student politics to being a lawyer at SAK. Halonen describes the trade union movement as being close to her heart and a formative sector where she worked for a decade. At the same time, however, she notes that the labour movement had its own challenges: the border between work and private life was blurred and there was a clear divide between “women’s and men’s jobs” with big differences in pay.  

When Halonen’s daughter Anna was born, a care agreement for a sick child was brought to the maternity ward for her to check since “there wouldn’t be time for it once she got home from the hospital”.  

“I always say with a glint in my eye that no-one needs to do the impossible! Things should be arranged so that no-one needs to do heroics.” 

New role models 

When Halonen became a member of parliament, she soon after also became a single parent. When asked how easy it was to reconcile working and family life in those days, she bursts out laughing.  

“There was no reconciliation!”  

A moment later she becomes more serious. 

“On the one hand, as the mother of a small child it was easier to be an MP than a trade union lawyer since in parliament in those days you could to some extent arrange your working hours yourself”, she reflects. 


Halonen thinks that the current government has set an example in reconciling work and family. 

“I think it has been great to see that ministers have had babies and then returned to work. This has been a significant time. It sets an example and also creates a narrative about how working life should be organised so that you don’t have to create heroic myths.”  

Halonen still sees two main challenges in Finnish working life from an equality perspective: gender hatred and equal pay. 

“Equal pay has been a surprisingly stubborn and difficult issue to resolve. Education, social policy, healthcare and the overall service sector, which are still female-dominated sectors, are especially behind in pay terms compared to other sectors”, Halonen says. 

Labour rights are work in progress  

Even though the decent work goal has been part of the ILO s brief for over twenty years and is widely seen as a key to eradicating poverty, safe working conditions and a living wage are still a distant aspiration for countless workers around the globe. This is also highlighted by the World Day for Decent Work organised by the trade union movement in early October. 

The transformation of working life and globalisation have also led to new dynamics from a workers’ rights perspective which Halonen thinks should be tackled next.  

“For example, with working life becoming more international, labour law, both nationally and internationally, has not taken account of people who work in more than one country either because of their career or life situations. It would be important to safeguard their social security, occupational safety and labour rights. I hope these issues remain in focus.” 

According to Halonen, the degree to which employment rights can be influenced, both in Finland and internationally, depends very much on attitudes towards the trade union movement.  

“Things take time to evolve and sometimes there are setbacks.”

Having had a long career at many areas of civic life and social action, Halonen knows that things take time to evolve and sometimes there are setbacks – which has been the case for the union movement in recent years.  

The main thing is to recognise that people have very different positions in working life and that a collective agreement system will continue to be necessary to guarantee minimum rights for workers.  

Halonen considers that the fragmentation of poverty and unemployment have often led people nowadays to blame themselves for their predicament, even though people’s prospects are affected by the social context.  

She would like to encourage young people to play an active role for better working life and more broadly for sustainable development. 

“Everything is impossible until it has been achieved. Sustainable development is a long march. It isn’t a project, rather a necessary change in direction to give everyone the right to enjoy life.” 

She also highlights compassion and teamwork. 

“It’s important to remember that it is enough to act decently. Individual contributions can be decisive, but nobody can change the world by themselves – we all have responsibility. It’s a work in progress.”   

Rounding off the interview, Halonen says a sense of humour and determination are important. These are strengths that have undoubtedly featured in her own distinguished career. 


Source material for this article from Katri Merikallio’s book Tarja Halonen – Erään aktivistin tarina (Into 2022) .