Strike threat over Polish storm workers in Sweden

Swedish trade unions this week opened another front in their conflict with foreign workers in Sweden, after Polish electricians were hired to fix cables damaged in storms in southern Sweden.

Thousands of people were left without electricity after the storms, which struck large areas of southern Sweden on January 8th. Today, three weeks after the storms, around 12,800 households are still without electricity. Electricity company Sydkraft says that it will be another two weeks before most people are reconnected.

In the midst of the urgent work to reconnect people to the electricity grid, labour disputes were perhaps the last thing that electricity companies expected to face, Yet a Swedish electricians’ union has chosen to use the emergency to pick a fight with foreign workers. Conflicts between Swedish and foreign labour forces has long been an issue in Sweden. The storm has only worsened matters between energy company Sydkraften and the union, Svenska Elektrikerförbundet (SEF), reported Sydsvenska Dagbladet on Tuesday.

Nine Polish electricians from Polskie Sieci Elektroenergetycne Systmem (PSE System) have begun fixing cables in Småland. SEF has objected to the workers, even though the union’s chairman Stig Larsson admits that he has no evidence that the Poles are being used as cheap labour.

“We are investigating this Polish company,” he told Svenska Dagbladet on Thursday.

SEF has given a strike notice for Monday for members working in Sydkraft’s power stations, but not for those fixing storm damage.

Björn Tibell, director for EFA, the energy companies employers’ association, claimed that the Polish workers are earning more than a Swedish electrician would make and that a little competition in the market is good.

“The workers are making between 130 and 145 crowns an hour. It’s the equivalent to 22,800 and 25,500 crowns a month. A Swedish electrician makes about 22,000,” says Tibell.

He also said that it is shameful that SEF is bringing up this issue at the moment when instead they should be focusing on dealing with houses that still lack electricity. He added that the protests by the union were protectionist, and said that the conflict was a sign of a growing problem in the labour market.

Another dispute about foreign labour moved to another level this week. Latvian builders working at a school on the island of Vaxholm, near Stockholm, have been the subject of a blockade by builders’ union Byggnads, forcing work on the school to a standstill. Two weeks ago, the Labour Court ruled that the blockade is not illegal.

Now the case could end up in the lap of the European Commission. And this week Sweden’s Social Democratic government, which has strong links to trade unions, was lobbying European commissioner Vladimir Spindla, who has responsibility for labour market questions. Spindla said that he was unsure how the case would be handled at the European level, but said that if the dispute escalated both the commission and the European Court would become involved. He added that he understood how important the system of collective agreements was to Swedes.

One of the questions that the commissioner refused to address was whether Sweden should, like many other countries, introduce a minimum wage.