Visitors walk in Santa Claus Village in Finland, one of the Scandinavian countries where everyone’s tax returns are readily available to everyone else. James Brooks AP file
Visitors walk in Santa Claus Village in Finland, one of the Scandinavian countries where everyone’s tax returns are readily available to everyone else. James Brooks AP file

National

Wonder what your coworkers earn? In these countries, you can read their tax returns

By Jared Gilmour

jgilmour@mcclatchy.com

November 01, 2017 07:42 AM

UPDATED November 01, 2017 11:24 AM

Nov. 1 is a big day in Finland — especially if you’re itching to know the salary of the guy in the cubicle across from you.

That’s because the first day of November is when Finland’s tax-collecting agency releases income and tax numbers for everyone — yes, everyone — in the country, according to Yle News, Finland’s public broadcasting station.

Once that data is put out, anyone in the country can find out what anyone else makes with just a phone call, according to Reuters. Finns call it “national envy day,” and seem to understand that the practice would be unthinkable elsewhere.

“The annual orgy of financial voyeurism might raise eyebrows in other parts of the world, but it remains an important national event in Finland,” as Yle News writes.

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Finland is not alone in the radical level of salary and tax transparency it offers taxpayers, according to the Financial Times: Sweden and Norway make their taxpayers’ returns publicly available as well.

Compare that to the United States, where tax returns are generally a private affair, even if the desire to see other people’s is just as strong as in Scandinavia. Think back to the 2016 presidential campaign, when then-GOP nominee Donald Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public became a major story.

It is one of the last taboos. You can swear on television and breastfeed in public, but you cannot talk about how much you earn.

Financial Times

In the United States and in Britain, even asking someone else how much they make can come across wrong — as the Financial Times writes: “It is one of the last taboos. You can swear on television and breastfeed in public, but you cannot talk about how much you earn.”

Equal Pay for Equal Work

40 years ago, Batgirl fought for equal pay for equal work, a fight that persists today. While the wage gap has closed slightly, women still earn 78 percent of what men earn, on average. And for women of color the gap is even wider.

United States Department of Labor

From the sound of it, though, most Scandinavians don’t think much of the lack of privacy. It might be that they’ve gotten used to it. At least in Norway, public tax returns have been a way of life since the 1800s, according to the Guardian.

“It has been in place a very long time and is generally accepted by the people of Norway,” Mariken Holter, the communications director at Skatteetaten, the Norwegian tax-collecting agency, told the Guardian.

And at least in some cases, the Guardian reports, people whose tax returns are requested get notified about who’s looking into them. Holter says could help make sure no on is looking up a neighbor’s salary to mock them.

But what, beyond indulging in our own nosiness, are the benefits?

One strength is that making salaries publicly known can help lay bare any gaps in pay between people doing the same jobs — whether those gaps fall along gender, racial or other lines, according to the Financial Times.

In Sweden, for example, companies that have more than 25 employees can get fined if they fail to close a gender gap in pay at the business, the Financial Times reports.

Swedish men make only 6 percent more than Swedish women who do the same jobs, according to the Financial Times. In the United States, meanwhile, women make 20 percent less than men performing the same job, according to CNBC.

Transparency helps expose that gap — and some think that can help close it.

Earlier this year, Germany passed legislation promoting wage transparency to reduce the gender pay gap in the country, Fortune reports. Germany’s gender wage gap is among the highest across Europe, according to Deutsche Welle.

But not everyone agrees that blanket transparency is the best way to solve the problem. Some even think it could create new ones.

“The right to demand salary information will foster workplace envy and discontent,” Christian von Stetten, a German member of parliament, told the newspaper Die Welt.