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EU "crisis" as Swedish union blocks Latvian builders

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15:10 CET+01:00
A team of Latvian builders working for a Latvian company in Sweden could be forced to down tools after a blockade by Byggnad, the Swedish Builders Union. The site at the centre of the dispute is a school building on the island of Vaxholm.

The builders receive free board and lodgings and a salary of 14,000 crowns per month, in accordance with their country's collective agreement. Not enough, cried Byggnad who demanded that their employers should adhere to Swedish standards and up their monthly earnings by 10,000 crowns.

The Latvian company's refusal has raised the question of whether foreign workers should be forced to sign up to Swedish closed shop agreements or whether that would be a restriction on free movement of labour.

Latvia's foreign minister Artis Pabriks told Monday's Dagens Nyheter that, as far as he's concerned, the European Commission can decide.

"The Latvian company isn't being fairly treated," he said. "This goes against our understanding of why we joined the EU. We can't remain silent."

Last week, the Latvian government called on the Swedish ambassador to ask for an explanation of the union's decision. "If the answer from Sweden isn't positive there remains nothing else to do but to challenge it," added Pabriks.

The Swedish government has given the union blockade continuous support and discounts the Latvian plea of discrimination.

Monday's response from employment minister Hans Karlsson only served to ruffle a few more Latvian feathers.

"We have explained the Swedish model and how the collective agreement works," Karlsson told Tuesday's DN. "Our system is compatible with the EU. The rules apply to everyone, regardless of nationality. So it is up to the Latvians to decide for themselves what they want to do."

Karlsson refused to speculate on the outcome if the case was taken to the EU court but rejected any suggestions that Sweden should consider the introduction of statutory minimum wages instead.

According to DN, if the two Baltic neighbours battle it out in Brussels, there could be long-term consequences for Sweden. In what would be an unprecedented case, there is no guarantee that Swedish collective agreements would stand up in the EU court.

Day three of DN's coverage revealed on Wednesday that the Swedish Electrician's Union had decided to offer a round of sympathy action.

The union threatened to blockade the Vaxholm school and a house on the Stockholm outskirts, which is being renovated by the Latvian building company at the centre of the bother.

The Latvian builders are still hammering away in Vaxholm, which begs the question of what actually constitutes a blockade in Sweden. But that is set to change in the next few days, as Torgny Johansson, the chairman of Byggettan - the Stockholm branch of Byggnad - told Swedish Radio.

"From Friday, the electricians will stop working," he said. "That means that within a few days all work there will completely come to a halt since there won't be any electrical power at the site."

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Expressen, SR, Dagens PS

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