Pass the sick bag: Ryanair hits Swedish turbulence

It all started with a few minor bumps: a series of articles last month in SvD lifting the lid on Ryanair's allegedly poor personnel policies and dodgy safety procedures. But when union HTF made a cheeky protest at Nyköping's Skavsta airport last week, it was as if one of the low fares airline's diminutive Boeings had been struck by lightning. On Monday came the thunder clap: chief executive Michael O'Leary flew to Stockholm to put the record straight.

First of all, the allegations. In August, SvD’s business pages reported grumblings from Ryanair employees about low wages, fines for taking sick leave, long hours without breaks and staff being dismissed for contacting trade unions.

Last week, DN detailed a number of recent incident reports, in which Ryanair had been criticised. A report from British investigators into an incident at Stansted Airport in which an engine caught fire on landing claimed that cabin crew dealt badly with the situation and were poorly trained in handling such emergencies.

Another recent report from Irish inspectors looked at the circumstances surrounding a pilot who suffered a heart attack shortly after taking off from Charleroi in Belgium in 2002. It revealed the stress faced by pilots in coping with schedules which demand 25 minute turnarounds.

Such revelations prompted HTF, the trade union which serves flight personnel in Sweden, to take action. Last week, they went to Skavsta airport, used by Ryanair for their Stockholm flights, and handed sick bags to bemused passengers on their way to Paris bearing the legend ‘Magstarkt’ (‘strong-stomached’ or ‘disgusting’).

According to last Wednesday’s DN, they didn’t receive much support. First of all, they were kicked out of the departure hall by airport chief Dot Gade Kulovuori: “I don’t want the passengers to make a connection between the airport and the union’s action,” she said.

Businessman Alper Gungör is a Ryanair regular and seemed unconcerned: “There are certain things you just have to put up with if you want to fly cheap.”

Alice Rönning and her daughter were amused by the sick bags and commented: “We have actually wondered how they can have such low fares.”

So what of that stormy Stockholm press conference? Not surprisingly, O’Leary came out with all guns blazing. According to Tuesday’s SvD, he was particularly keen to refute claims of inadequate safety.

“These are simply false accusations. We have had a perfect flying record for 20 years and operate according to the highest European standards.”

O’Leary also threatened to sue DN unless the paper retracted allegations about the airline’s safety records.

He didn’t agree with the stories of his airline being anti-union either. “It would never occur to us to threaten or otherwise stop our staff from joining a union. What we can say is that we’ll pay more if they negotiate with us directly.”

O’Leary was predictably dismissive of the HTF protest. It was all a ruse to recruit new members. “They can’t get over the fact that our employees get paid more than they would with them negotiating on their behalf.”

Indeed, Wednesday’s Expressen brought another angle to the story – that behind the HTF protest is none other than the flailing giant SAS.

“This is often the reaction when a monopoly is no longer alone,” said Lotta Lindquist-Brosjö, Ryanair’s Nordic boss.

But isn’t all this fuss in Sweden having a negative impact on the Ryanair brand?

“No, absolutely not,” said O’Leary, who pointed out that on average, Ryainair staff earn more than SAS staff.

“Our customers want to fly cheap. I don’t think they care whether we have collective bargaining or not. Or how we treat our employees.”

It was by all accounts a combative performance by O’Leary. He also emphasised Ryanair’s productivity record and claimed his staff have the best terms and conditions in the business.

Unfortunately, SvD couldn’t answer the questions on all readers’ lips. Did Michael O’Leary fly Ryanair to Stockholm? And if so, did he have to pay for his sandwiches?

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet

For members


TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner

For seasoned or aspiring cooks who’ve found a new life in Sweden, now might be the perfect time to join the Scandinavian culinary scene, argues Matthew Weaver, a writer and chef based in Malmö. 

TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner

In the wake of the global “Great Resignation”, restaurants and hotels are desperate for staff, and foreigners working in Swedish kitchens are finding themselves with higher bargaining power and unprecedented leverage with prospective employers.

Chicago transplant, Matan Levy, Chef-Owner of the award-winning Two Forks Hummus Shop in Malmö, tells the Local:  “It’s become an employees’ market. Back in the day, in the US, if you didn’t want to work for the terms that were offered – low wages, long hours, etc. there were plenty of people who would happily take your place. If you wanted good terms you had to put in the time.”

“That isn’t the case anymore. Now, it’s much more common to be having discussions about terms that I could only dream of as a young cook, even after 20-plus years in the industry.”

Levy runs Two Forks along with his Swedish wife Charlotte. 

Matan Levy, chef owner of Malmö restaurant Two Forks, in his kitchen. Photo: The Local.

What’s drawing foreign chefs to the Swedish food scene? 

The Scandinavian food trend kicked off in the early 2010s, when Copenhagen’s Noma won World’s Best Restaurant three consecutive years in a row,  attracting waves of customers and cooks drawn to New Nordic cuisine.

Soon after, Ethiopian-Swedish chef, Marcus Samuelsson, of Aqavit fame, opened his New York restaurant Red Rooster Harlem, introducing Scandinavian fusion. This combined Swedish classics, such as pickled herring and meatballs, with American Soul Food and Ethiopian cuisine. 

Cooks from abroad have found themselves working in Scandinavia, where restaurants have been freed up, with less emphasis on old-school “brigade” hierarchy, and more emphasis on collective creative input.

Another part of the attraction is the culture of forward-thinking, innovative food, with an emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Comparatively higher overall pay and benefits, working conditions, gender equality and attention to work-life balance continue to attract an international labour force.

Should you find yourself seeking work in Swedish “kök”, here are a couple essentials to acquaint yourself with to help ensure you aren’t tossed out of the frying pan and into the fire.

First things first…do you need to speak Swedish?

Seldom would this be in issue. In many, if not most, kitchens in major Swedish cities, English is tolerated and commonly accepted as a working language. Besides Swedes, you’ll often find yourself working alongside people from every continent.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t and won’t be picking up a little svenska as you go. After a handful of shifts, you’ll often find yourself forgetting words for certain fruits, vegetables and utensils in your native tongue, and most likely acquiring an expressive battery of Swedish curse words to alleviate stressful moments on the line (see here and here)

Will you need a fancy Culinary School degree?

Not really, but there can be exceptions (on paper at least). For instance, when applying to the Nordic hotel chain, Scandic – especially for Sous or Head Chef positions. They state in their job listings that it’s a plus to have “completed cooking training or have acquired the corresponding skills in another way..”. But for the industry as a whole, it’s mostly unnecessary, and “skills in another way” could be open to clever interpretation.

Employers will want you to come in for a few (paid) trial shifts to “see how we get along with each other.” For the inexperienced, graft, a good attitude and eagerness to learn goes a long way.  These days, after all, you can consult a wealth of detailed, encyclopaedic cookbooks, as well as brush up on knife skills and mother sauces on Youtube.

If a senior cook or chef is unwilling to spend time running through the basics, have no shame in marching out the door and into the next restaurant, which is probably a stone’s throw in any direction. The archetypical, overbearing, spiteful boar of a chef has thankfully become near extinct in the last decade, and you need not worry about having a plate or searing pan cast in your direction.

Is cash-in-hand payment a good idea?

Best avoided. If you work cash-in-hand, your employer does not pay any social security contributions for you, nor do you pay tax on your income. The Swedish Tax Agency may require that you pay the unpaid tax in arrears. Working cash-in-hand is also considered a criminal offence and could result in up to two years jail time.

Rights, Contract, Salary, “kollektivavtal”

Cook’s salaries for the most part haven’t increased by much in recent years, but with present demand for skilled, experienced workers you’re stacked with cards that would’ve held less value pre-pandemic.

A collective bargaining agreement (‘kollektivavtal’) negotiates an assortment of working and salary conditions agreed between employers and union representatives such as the HRF (Hotel and Restaurant Union). Around 70 percent of Swedish employees are members of a trade union and 90 percent are covered by collective agreements.

Though none of the Nordic countries have a statutory minimum wage, and there is no law to regulate people’s salaries or salary increases, Sweden uses collective agreements, often differentiated by age, skill or seniority, as a mechanism for setting the base. The base is currently 140.69 kronor (€13.65) per hour without professional experience and 151.09 kronor (€14.66) for those with six or more years of professional experience.

While it is up to you to keep track of current salary trends, if your job is covered by a collective agreement, your employer may not pay you anything below the fixed minimum salary.

Besides salary, there are a number of other benefits worth brushing up on. Sick pay and holiday pay is governed by law, while overtime pay and pay for “inconvenient” (‘ob-ersättning’) hours (evenings, nights, and weekends) falls under collective agreements.

If the type of work you do is not covered by a collective agreement, check that the terms of other existing kollektivavtal agreements are incorporated into your own written contract of employment. It is important to get hold of this as soon as possible. By law, you are entitled to a contract within a month of starting your job. Salary reviews should be encompassed in the terms of your employment contract.

A-kassa, and union help

Joining a union is a good way to secure your income in the event of unemployment.

All unions have unemployment funds and income insurances (‘a-kassor’) which are designed to keep you solvent and cover up to 80 percent of your salary during periods of unemployment, although a-kassa can be joined independently of a union, monthly membership is generally much cheaper.

Unions such as HRF will provide help with information regarding salary review and intervention in the case your employer doesn’t provide the salary you are entitled to; act on your behalf in case of conflict, unjust working conditions, discrimination, or bullying, as well as helping you to navigate the ins and outs of your pension, insurance for work injuries, illness, unemployment and parental leave.

Tips and tipping culture

Because robust unions help ensure that restaurant and bar workers in Sweden get exceptionally good hourly wages, it’s possible for folk to make a decent living that’s up to scratch without getting any tips at all.

Though tipping, or dricks, isn’t nearly as prevalent as in the US and Canada (where restaurant owners often use tipping as a pretext to offer low wages to their staff), customers here often round up to the nearest amount of the bill. This will usually be gathered and accumulated over the course of a month or two, to be split amongst service and kitchen staff, eventually ending up added to your paycheck.

The (often daunting) process of obtaining Work Permits/Visas for non-EU members.

Finding work in Sweden as a third-country national has unfortunately become complicated and time-consuming. It is crucial to start your search well before arrival, as you will need an employment offer in order to obtain a work permit.

Keep in mind that before a job can be provided to a third-country national, employers must ensure that they have clearly advertised and made the position accessible to Swedes first. If there is no interest from local or EU talent, third-country nationals can be considered.

The Public Employment and Swedish Migration Agency are known to update and share a ‘labour shortage list’, pertaining to jobs in high demand. Cooks and other restaurant workers are currently in that category

You’ll find plenty of information regarding registering with the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) and obtaining a personal ID number on their website, likewise with Arbetsformedlingen (Public Employment Service) and Migrationsverket (Migration Board), the latter of which explains the often tedious and exacerbating process regarding work permits for non-EU members. The Local clarifies both here