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UNIONS

Builders’ strike called off

A builders' strike has been called off after unions reached agreement with employers on a new national pay and conditions package.

“We’ve had to compromise a lot, but that’s how it is in circumstances like these, when you’ve got industrial action taking place,” said Bo Antoni, CEO of the Swedish Construction Federation.

Byggnads last week rejected a proposed agreement put forward by mediators, saying that the proposed wage increases in the deal were less than agreed industry norms. It called a strike for 800 workers for Peab, a large Swedish constructor. A further 1,500 workers at JM, NCC and Skanska had been due to walk out on 27th April.

According to the Swedish Construction Federation the new agreement is in line with that put forward last week, giving a 10.2 percent average wage increase over three years.

Nonetheless, employers caved in on a number of points, including a reduction in working time of one day a year in 2008 and one day in 2009.

Employers scored an important victory by keeping so-called inspection fees out of the agreement.

Inspection fees of 1.5 percent of wages are charged by Byggnads both to members and non-members, the purpose of which is to ensure that employers are paying the right wages. The fees to non-members were ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights earlier this year.

“The judgment said that we should be more transparent when we accounted for how the money was used,” said Byggnads chairman Hans Tilly.

“We found a model that suited us, but we felt that the employers kept putting a spanner in the works. We have therefore simply taken the inspection fees out of the agreement,” he said.

“But this doesn’t mean that we will stop checking that the right wage is being paid to members. That will remain an important question for us.”

Byggnads has said it will now raise membership fees by 155 kronor a month in order to cover the loss of the inspection fees. Employers also agreed that they would hand Byggnads details of the wages of all workers, whether members of the union or not.

Despite agreeing to the measure, the Swedish Construction Federation said it was “very dubious from a data protection standpoint.”

Peab, the only company to be hit by the strike, said it was not particularly happy with the agreement.

“We don’t need more bureaucracy in the workplace, which is what this is going to lead to,” said spokesman Gösta Sjöström.

VAXHOLM

Foreign workers at centre of Swedish election battle

Promises by the Social Democrats to roll back reforms to Swedish laws affecting migrant workers has put the rights of foreign workers and the power of Sweden's unions front and centre in upcoming parliamentary elections, argues liberal contributor Nima Sanandaji.

Foreign workers at centre of Swedish election battle
A scene from the Vaxholm union blockade in 2004. File photo: TT
The question of foreign workers' situation in Sweden is on its way to becoming an important topic in the upcoming election
 
Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven recently promised to change legislation to ensure that “Swedish collective bargaining agreements apply in Sweden”.  
 
The issue is centered on a fairly complicated story of how a Latvian construction company won the bid to rebuild a school in the Stockholm suburb of Vaxholm back in 2004, and in so doing had a significant impact on Swedish labour law and the country's relationship with the European Union.
 
At the time, Swedish labour union Byggnads, which organizes construction workers, demanded that the Latvian company follow a Swedish collective bargaining deal stipulating relatively high wages. When these demands were not met, the union blockaded the building site. 
 
Construction was stopped and the Swedish branch of the Latvian construction company was forced into bankruptcy. Shouts of “Go home, go home!” from a Byggnads representative came to symbolize a perceived intolerance for foreign competition among Swedish blue-collar workers.
 
Nearly ten years have passed since the conflict started. Since the initial conflict, two Swedish unions Byggnads and Elektrikerna (which organizes electricians and joined in a sympathy action) have been forced to pay a fine for waging an illegal strike. 
 
Sweden also passed new legislation on the rights of foreign workers, dubbed Lex Laval, reforms that unions argue made it harder to enforce collective action in the defence of foreign workers' rights.
 
Two weeks ago, the reforms were condemned by a European human rights body, and last week Löfven appeared with the head of Sweden's largest blue-collar trade union group, LO, promising to overturn the Lex Laval reforms should the Social Democrats assume power after the next election.
 
So where do the government and the opposition differ in their opinions on the subject? Lex Laval was introduced by the center-right Alliance government to bring Sweden in compliance with a 2007 European Court of Justice ruling against the unions' actions in the Vaxholm conflict. 
 
The reforms prevent unions in Sweden from starting conflicts against foreign companies, as they did to Laval in 2004, unless foreign firms fail to adhere to minimum wags and benefit requirements set by collective agreements in Sweden.
 
The Social Democrats and the labour unions, on the other hand, want to give unions the right to demand higher wages than those stipulated by minimum requirements, and to start conflicts if these are not met. The International Labour Organization (ILO) as well as the European Committee on Social Rights (ECSR) have come out in favour of the latter idea. 
 
A third perspective might be for unions to stop blockading or otherwise attacking firms that do not follow collective agreements – an option open even if the employees in the firms in question do not themselves wish to be included in such agreements. But this third perspective is hardly voiced in the Swedish debate.
 
The debate about the rights of foreign workers and Swedish unions has been given new life in the context of electoral politics which finds the Social Democrats fighting for the affections of blue-collar workers, many of whom are also attracted to the populist, anti-immigration rhetoric of the far-right Sweden Democrats. Indeed, nearly one in five LO members would vote for the Sweden Democrats, a November 2013 poll revealed.
 
However, Sweden's blue-collar workers are likely to support the Social Democrats' stance on Lex Laval. Thus restricting downward foreign pressure Swedish wages might well be an election-year promise that will move workers who have begun supporting the Sweden Democrats back into the Social Democrats. 
 
Of course, the more free-market oriented government has criticized the Social Democrats position as being too protectionist. But protectionism on the labour market is not always unpopular politically; not least in the current situation where Sweden, like many other modern economies, is suffering from a lack of job opportunities for workers who lack higher education.
 
Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin with a PhD in polymer technology, has written numerous books and reports about subjects such as integration, entrepreneurship, and women's career opportunities. His recent book, published by Sweden's Reforminstitutet think tank, is entitled Krympande eller växande städer ('Shrinking or growing cities'). He is a regular contributor to The Local.
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