Unions demonstrate against benefit cuts

Thousands of workers demonstrated in central Stockholm on Thursday against the government's plan to raise premiums for unemployment insurance while decreasing payouts to the jobless.

Rallies organised by the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) were to be held in towns and cities across Sweden throughout the day and evening, one week before members of parliament vote on the government’s proposal on December 20.

The midday protest in Stockholm near the parliament building, where artists and speakers took turns appearing on stage in chilly, damp weather, gathered “about 3,500 people”, police spokesman Bjoern Engström told AFP.

Union members from the construction, retail, municipal workers’ sector were among those taking part.

“We are here to combat the prospect of deteriorated unemployment insurance at all costs,” the head of LO, Wanja Lundby-Wedin, said.

“Everyone will be affected (by the proposal), the jobless of course but it will also lead to pressure on wages for all employees,” she said.

As the government of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt holds a majority in parliament the proposal is expected to pass. The new law will go into effect on January 1, though the decreased payouts will only take effect in March.

The four-party Alliance for Sweden is the country’s first majority government in a quarter-century, after making the issue of employment the main theme in September’s general election campaign.

While official figures put the jobless rate at 4.3 percent in November, experts say that a fifth of Swedes of working age live on state subsidies, either claiming unemployment, sick leave or early retirement payments or are on government retraining schemes.

Reinfeldt’s government has made it a top priority to reduce the generous subsidies to give Swedes more incentive to work.

But the proposal has been a bitter pill to swallow for many people, and the government has paid with its popularity. A poll by Statistics Sweden published on Thursday showed the Social Democrats, Left and Green parties leading the four governing parties by nearly seven percent. The left wing bloc had the support of 51.3 percent, while the centre-right Alliance had 44.5 percent.