There´s no mistaking the differences between the political parties in Sweden any more. Those who have raised concerns that all parties have a similar agenda, and who say it makes no difference who runs the show, have all had to rethink. Left and right have become chillingly differentiated since the change of government in October.
The political changes that are now being implemented drastically affect a lot of people’s lives. Those with higher incomes and fortunes will get a nice tax cut. Those who live in exclusive houses in attractive residential areas will also see their wallets fatten when the tax on residential lots is cut.
Employers, companies and corporations won’t have to pay the same amounts in social security contributions, and will be freed from the collective responsibility to protect those employed who are struck by illness or disease.
Instead, those who are most exposed and strive hardest in society will be the ones that have to carry that particular burden.
These people are exposed economically because the income for someone who is unemployed, on sick-leave or early retired is drastically lower than for people who have regular work. These people are also exposed psychologically, as the overwhelming majority wants to work, but is hindered by factors beyond their control.
During the election campaign, the right-wing alliance which now constitutes the governing administration constantly shouted that “it has to be profitable to work”. What that really meant was “it should be impossibly unaffordable to be unemployed”– something we Social Democrats pointed out. The right-wing rhetoric is now becoming reality.
The differences between the realities faced by people with a job and by those outside the labour market are becoming greater. The support for those who have lost their jobs has been dramatically decreased, and the changes have been made in such a frenzy that no understanding is shown for labour unions, administrative authorities, and individuals who are forced into a new harsher reality.
The absolutely worst ticket is given to those who are unemployed, who have lost their jobs, or have a weak connection with the work market – these people are affected negatively in more ways than others.
Apart from the lowering of social insurance compensation, increased fees, and new working conditions, adult education programmes (Komvux) are going to have to reduce the number of students by as much as 30%. In some communities, that basically means half the educational opportunities.
This means that adults in need of a new basic education, who need to retrain or who need to further their competence in order to gain access to higher education, will have fewer opportunities to do so than before.
All the while as many as 800,000 Swedish adults lack a full high school education. At the same time the transformation of the economy from one based on industrial production to one based on new services places demands on employees to further their learning and raise their competence.
The state employment agency’s resources have also been cut – from 145,000 annual temporary positions in labour schemes to as few as 85,000, in a first strike against the organisation. In 2008, the slashing will continue.
All this results in fewer possibilities to obtain the education needed to be able to apply for the vacant jobs available.
A long waiting line for adult education and the employment agency´s re-education opportunities means that those willing to change direction in their lives to accommodate the need for a different kind of work force must remain unemployed, since their abilities don´t match the employers’ demands. The initiative that is mustered is quickly beaten down, and for a person struck with unemployment, the risk of ending up in a slave-wage job is significant.
For a member of the Kommunal labour union, a month´s wages roughly lands at 18,000 kronor. At present, when such a person becomes unemployed, their income falls to 14,410 kronor in a regular month.
The slashing of unemployment compensation soon to be implemented by the new administration means that compensation will land at about 11,700 kronor. That means a decrease of more than 2,700 kronor for a person already on a low income.
The harsher unemployment compensation rules stipulate that the same person must be willing to take any job in any field anywhere in the country as long as it pays over 10,500 kronor. If not, that person’s unemployment compensation will be revoked. This will do even more to create a breeding ground for a low-salary work market.
It is evident that we are seeing a new society emerge.
Lena Hallengren was an education minister in the Swedish government between 2002 and 2006. She now sits in parliament for the Social Democrats.