Finland sees dual benefits from rehab and recycling

The Uusix workshops in Helsinki combine social and environmental values by giving long-term jobseekers a chance to return to working life while making new products out of recycled materials.

The City of Helsinki runs the imaginative Uusix scheme in a set of converted workshops where people who have been struggling to get back into the job market can gain skills and experience. The name Uusix stems from uusi, the Finnish word for “new,” and implies a process of renewal.

At the workshops, recycled materials are put to good use in the production of goods ranging from jewellery and ceramics to textiles and furnishings. Uusix workers also repair furniture, computers and bicycles.

Valuable social contacts

Uusix manager Vuokko Oivarinen shows off a Jaqueline Kennedy bag.Photo: Hernan Patiño

“We get most of our materials free from various departments of the City of Helsinki, or from commercial businesses,” says Uusix manager Vuokko Oikarinen. “People and organisations today are rightly reluctant to throw away useful stuff. We also feel it’s nice that there are stories behind our products – like our range of Jaqueline bags, made from the sails of a large yacht that the Kennedy family used to own, and printed here with graphic images of the former US First Lady.”

“Really our most important goal is to give unskilled people who have fallen out of the job market a first step back into working life,” says Oikarinen. “They earn a little extra money – which certainly helps – and also gain useful skills. But the most important thing is often for them to get back into the social environment and routine of a real working community.”

Social and physical activities, from aerobics and yoga sessions to quizzes and museum visits, are regularly organised for the staff at Uusix. Oikarinen explains that many people there are recovering from problems such as excessive alcohol or drug use, in addition to long-term unemployment.

Getting back on track

Tuukka Semi is gathering experience in graphic design at Uusix while also getting himself back into the swing of working life.Photo: Hernan Patiño

Marginalised jobseekers are referred to Uusix from Helsinki’s social services department. The only strict requirement is that applicants must promise that they are not currently using illegal drugs.

Tuukka Semi, who is in his late 30s, has worked at Uusix for almost a year, specialising in graphic design and IT work, including the production of Uusix’s own magazine and website. “I was previously unemployed for many years, only able to find occasional freelance work after dropping out long ago from a graphics course at a polytechnic institute,” he says.

Semi also suffered from alcohol problems, but he feels his job at Uusix is now putting him back on the right path. “I believe working here will help me to get back into working life more permanently,” he says. “It’s great to get into a routine and gain good practical experience in a field that interests me.”

Constant renewal

Anita Pulli uses spare cloth donated by Finnish design house Marimekko to sew tote bags printed with Uusix’s own designs.Photo: Hernan Patiño

The Uusix workshops bustle with people busy fixing old chairs, converting old keys and coins into trendy jewellery, and tinkering with used bikes and computers.

Many of Uusix’s design products are passed on to departments of the City of Helsinki for use as gifts. Others are sold in pop-up Uusix stalls at events, or in a permanent shop adjoining the workshops, where mugs, printed bags and unique jewellery items are among the most popular purchases.

By Fran Weaver, April 2017