The situation of the Finnish forest industries – low labour costs are the only source of competitiveness?

The Finnish Forest Industries Federation published a kind of press release of the situation of the forest industries until September this year. The overall picture is both positive and negative, as a result of the economic crisis. But on the other hand, the accession of Russia to the WTO might be positive for the Finnish paper industry.

On the issue of labour, however, the federation is placing the blame for potential competitiveness loss on labour and the labour union.

Moderate labour costs enable the forest industry to retain its competitiveness

All employee categories of both the paper industry and the mechanical forest industry concluded collective bargaining agreements that were in line with the framework agreement negotiated between the central labour market organisations.

[…]

Finland’s cost competitiveness must be looked after. If labour costs are permitted to rise, Finland’s competitiveness will weaken further in relation to our rival nations, and this will have a negative impact on corporate willingness to invest in our country.

So, there is the statement that moderate labour costs help competitiveness. So far, so good – this is kind of standard Wolfgang Streeck -fare of responsible labour unions (wage moderation etc., also like in 1982 in The Netherlands’ Akkoord van Wassenaar (‘Wassenaar Agreement’), which help industries to remain competitive by not letting wage costs run out of hand. However, the deal in those cases was really a deal: in accepting only very moderate wage growth, labour unions in the Netherlands and Germany got for their responsibility employment security (and some other goodies related to co-determination). In this sense, it was really a trade-off for both employers and employees in which both parties benefited in the long term.

If we look at METLA’s statistics of real income development, then since 2005 real income (as an index) has increased fairly moderately, which is mostly due to inflation, which also explains the fairly large jump in 2008-2009, when inflation in Finland was nearly 3,5 percent. Nominal wage increases have been very moderate since 2005. So, in collective bargaining the labour union has been prudent, and historically the Finnish Paper Workers’ Union has commonly taken into account the industry’s competitive position.

And we must not forget, as I have also argued in my dissertation, that although  labour costs are not marginal, they are not a very great part of total costs. Energy, logistics and raw materials account for the major changes in costs. In particular the raw materials, which may be timber and chemicals etc., fluctuate in price and there is a whole separate discussion on how to improve the availability and price level of timber for the paper industry.

But in the context of the employers’ federation, labour costs are the primary ‘bad guy’, as these are the few costs that can somehow be moderated through collective bargaining, whereas costs for transport, raw materials and energy are much less in the control of the companies. So let’s look at the statement again:

If labour costs are permitted to rise, Finland’s competitiveness will weaken further in relation to our rival nations, and this will have a negative impact on corporate willingness to invest in our country.

This indicates a belief that only labour costs drive the competitiveness of the Finnish forest industries, which is plain wrong. Moreover, labour costs can easily rise if other parts of the cost equation decline! And the bit about investment is just the stuff that comes from male cattle’s behind, because investment is surely not only related to labour costs. Other issues are taken in account too: the skills of the workforce, tax levels, availability of a supportive infrastructure, a value-chain of related businesses…let’s not forget that Finland has a fairly unique capacity in know-how and scientific institutions related to the forest industries – the whole idea of the cluster of the forest industries is to show the added value of the whole of Finnish R&D, knowledge, resources etc.

Concludingly, it is rather misleading to single out labour costs as the only important driver of competitiveness, especially since the same press release mentions transport costs already in the beginning. Besides, it is kind of harsh in an environment where already more than 4000 people have lost their job in the paper industry, even after serious efforts to implement cost saving programs. The statement in the press release does not do justice to the men and women who work in the forest industries.

Furthermore, it is difficult to square the resistance to the Sulphur Directive with the statement that ‘The forest industry as the locomotive for a low-carbon society’ is an important future direction. See also this separate press release.

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2 responses to “The situation of the Finnish forest industries – low labour costs are the only source of competitiveness?

  1. Pingback: YLE: ‘Professorin yllätysväite: Vientiongelmat johtuvat huonosta yritysjohdosta’ | Arjen polku

  2. Pingback: Suomen kilpailukyky, Eurokriisi, Palkkataso ja muita myyttejä Euroalueesta | Arjen polku

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