A man’s job

Finnish forest workers’ standard of living and working conditions became topics of debate in the 1950s and 1960s, attracting attention even from the highest echelons of the country. President Urho Kekkonen expressed his concern about the economic situation of people living in remote areas in his speeches. In his opinion, the income level of Finnish forest workers was a national disgrace. The seasonal nature of their work in rural areas meant that they were a group that personified many problems. Their earnings lagged behind those of other manual workers, except for farm workers. The State intervened in the situation in 1962 by introducing an act the main objective of which was to raise the wages of forest workers to the level of those in the woodworking industry. Unemployment was widespread among forest workers and, even in the 1960s, there was seasonal variation: forest work was available in winter but they worked in agriculture or construction in summer.

 

“Taking into account the developments of the real level of workers’ wages since 1955, it has to be noted that forest workers’ earnings were 12–13% lower than the general level of income during that period. Such a development in forest workers’ level of income during an economic boom is a national disgrace.”

Urho Kekkonen in his speech on the radio on 15 February 1962

 

Inspired by the societal debate, the Department of Forest Economics of the Finnish Forest Research Institute conducted a study on the standard of living of Finnish forest workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Major changes took place both in forest work and in the wider structure of Finnish society at that time. The findings were published in Suomalainen metsätyömies (‘Finnish forest worker’, WSOY 1972). The book conveys a picture of men who are proud of their ethics of hard work and who appear, at least on the surface, to be contented with very little. Working in nature on piece-rate pay gave forest workers a sense of freedom, but the downside was the hard work, low pay and the prevalence of occupational diseases and industrial accidents. As a group, forest workers also felt that their work was not appreciated by the wider society. They were often willing to change jobs, but opportunities for this were rare in rural areas.

Forest workers toiled in difficult terrain with questionable ergonomics at the mercy of the elements, which left marks on their health. The institute’s study also included a medical examination and interviews of selected forest workers. A quarter of those surveyed were found to have a heart condition. Smoking was common: at least seven in ten smoked regularly. Respiratory symptoms were abundant, and they were aggravated by prolonged exposure to cold weather. The workers’ musculoskeletal systems were overloaded in the different phases of forest work. The chainsaw caused vibration white finger in one of two forest workers, and its noise caused hearing loss in two out of three. Wearing personal protection equipment was rare as only one in four forest workers wore ear protection, and only seven percent wore hard hats. Only construction sites had a higher accident rate than logging sites.

Nutrition, clothing and housing were also challenges faced by forest workers. Energy consumption was higher in forest work compared to most other occupations at more than 4,800 kilocalories a day. Their diet was one-sided, as it was difficult to transport or prepare a warm meal on a logging site. They often had coffee and half-frozen sandwiches for lunch by a campfire. Workwear was usually woollen clothes or terylene trousers as workwear suitable for forest work was only just being developed. Low-income forest workers thought that employers should have paid for workwear and protective equipment, at least in part. The low level of earnings became even more pronounced as workers got older since their performance and, consequently, wages began to decline after the age of 50. Forest workers lived far from the services and leisure activities found in towns and other population centres. Fishing and hunting were their most popular hobbies. Journeys from home to logging sites were long. As the forest road network improved, the journeys were mainly done by moped; less than a quarter of forest workers owned a car.

 

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