More work + same pay = happy boss

The summer torpor has been disturbed at regular intervals by controversial comments from some of Sweden's leading captains of industry. Martin Nicklasson of Astra Zeneca threatened to move his company out of Sweden if local and regional authorities didn't buy more of his company's drugs. And Leif Östling, the chief at Scania, called Swedes a country of 'lazy bones' and demanded reforms to the sick pay and unemployment benefit systems.

Now Sten Jakobsson, Swedish head of power and automation specialists ABB, has demanded that Swedish workers follow the lead of their German counterparts by accepting longer working hours for the same pay. Thursday’s GP reported his comments in an interview with Dagens Eko.

“In Germany, they’re reducing their labour costs,” he said. “A number of countries in the industrialised world need to do that, not least Sweden. We have an unbelievable number of holidays and high hourly costs and we can’t afford that if we want to stay competitive.”

His comments refer to recent developments where major manufacturers such as Siemens and Bosch have reached agreements with trade unions in Germany and France to introduce longer working weeks for the same pay in exchange for a promise not to move production abroad.

Jakobsson is supported by Lennart Nilsson, chairman of Teknikföretagen, the employers’ organisation for the manufacturing sector. He also wants to take the ‘last in, first out’ law off the statute books, whereby the most recently hired employees are the first to go when a company is forced to make redundancies.

“If you’ve been at a company for 20 years you won’t be rushing to find a job elsewhere and start from the bottom on the ‘last in, first out list’,” he pointed out.

Industry expert Carl Bennet agreed that it was worth considering longer working hours, but disagreed with Jakobsson’s assertion that Swedish labour costs were expensive or that the German model was a solution.

A long queue of influential figures formed to politely disagree with Jakobsson. Ingemar Göransson of trade union organisation, LO, commented: “For the last 100 years, Swedish workers have discussed shorter working weeks and will continue to do so for the next 100 years. The belief that somehow we’ve got as far as we can go is rather pessimistic.”

Hans Karlsson, the minister for working life, was unimpressed: “What Jakobsson is saying in practice is that he wants to cut wages. It’s the same argument used by the timber merchants a hundred years ago.”

He said that Swedish workers weren’t supposed to compete with low cost economies for unqualified assembly jobs.

“We must compete in areas where we can be the best. It’s not the same as being the cheapest. We’re investing in a qualified, educated, safety-conscious workforce.”

According to International Labour Office figures, the wages of Swedish manufacturing workers are significantly lower than those in Germany, with a similar number of holidays and working hours.