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Danes ‘furious’ over plan to abolish public holiday to fund defence budget

The union leader Lizette Risgaard accused politicians of violating labour agreements.

The Danish government’s plan to abolish a public holiday to help fund the defence budget amid the war in Ukraine is putting Denmark’s cherished welfare model at risk, the country’s biggest trade union confederation has warned.

“It’s a big threat to the Danish model,” said Lizette Risgaard, the head of the FH confederation, which has 1.3 million members in a country of 5.9 million inhabitants. “Politicians should stay out of labour market issues. If they go through with this they will be imposing their will and violate our agreements,” she told AFP on Wednesday.

The left-right government coalition, in power since December and led by the Social Democratic prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, plans to scrap the religious holiday known as Great Prayer Day, observed since the 17th century. Initially introduced as a day of prayer, fasting and penitence, it falls on the fourth Friday after Easter and is a common date for confirmations.

But the government wants to get rid of the public holiday and use the money to raise the defence budget to Nato’s target of 2% of GDP by 2030, instead of 2033 as previously planned. The government says the accelerated calendar is necessary due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The move is expected to provide an extra 3bn kroner (£355m) to state coffers.

The cancelled holiday would entail an additional 7.4 hours of labour per worker, according to the government. “I don’t think it’s a problem to have to work an extra day,” Frederiksen said.

“We are facing enormous expenditures for defence and security, health care, psychiatry and the green transition,” she said, presenting the new government’s programme to parliament.

Danes will have to work an extra day, which will be paid for by employers. But the public holiday, and the wages paid to those who work that day and those who take the day off, are already enshrined in Denmark’s sacred collective wage agreements.

“It’s a public holiday. And, of course, they can say: ‘OK, we want to abolish it,’” said Risgaard. “But then they are going against what we have agreed upon in negotiations: to have the right to be with your family that day. In our collective wage agreements, there are 600 different ways of defining wages when someone works that day.”

A recent poll by the market researchers Epinion indicated an overwhelming number of Danes opposed the move, which was not mentioned during last autumn’s election campaign. Only 17% supported the plan, while 75% were against it.

“They are interfering with the Danish model,” Pernille Holm, a physiotherapist in her 30s, told AFP on Thursday. “We have a way of doing things here in Denmark. We [negotiate] with our employer. And the unions negotiate our rights as workers. The government should not be able to do anything without including these two parts.”

An online petition started by FH confederation has gathered almost half a million signatures.

The Lutheran church and organisations representing military employees have also protested against the move. “I am furious that they are using the military this way by saying that the money from the public holiday will go to increasing the budget,” the head of the main union representing military personnel, Jesper Korsgaard Hansen, told the newspaper BT.

In parliament, only the three governmental parties, which hold a majority, support the measure. The nine opposition parties, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right, say they will refuse to take part in any new defence policy agreement until the government withdraws its plan.

For Danes, there is a sense of deja vu. Ten years ago, a Social Democratic government tried to abolish the same public holiday but gave up amid a national outcry.

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