UN slams Sweden for guest worker policy

The United Nations has criticized Sweden for limiting trade unions' right to join forces with guest workers, in a statement from the International Labour Organization (ILO).

UN slams Sweden for guest worker policy

"Independent ILO lawyers agree with (Swedish trade unions) LO and TCO that the Laval Law contradicts the free association right," reported the legal newspaper Lag&Avtal on Wednesday.

The expert group at ILO, which is part of the UN system, has now advised the Swedish government to rethink the law.

It also advised the government to compensate the construction workers and electrician unions for the damages they had to pay out to the company L&P (Laval un Partneri) Baltic Bygg AB in a dispute.

The conflict involved the construction workers' union Byggnads setting up a blockade at the construction site of a new school in Vaxholm, in the Stockholm archipelago, after negotiations to bring Lithuanian workers' salaries up to Swedish levels stranded. The electricians joined in as an act of solidarity.

The incident is also nicknamed "The Vaxholm Conflict". The building company's name gave rise to a subsequent precedent-setting ruling – 'The Laval Law' – which came out of a European Court of Justice statement in 2007 that said the trade unions' actions restricted the freedom to provide services within the EU.

After several turns in the Swedish and European legal systems, the Swedish Labour Court (Arbetsdomstolen) in 2009 ruled that the blockade was illegal and ordered that the unions pay 550,000 kronor to the contractor and pay 2.1 million kronor to cover the court costs.

The mostly blue-collar Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) and its white-collar colleagues at TCO reported the ruling to the ILO in 2010, claiming it did not respect international treaties on the freedom of association (föreningsrätten).

The expert opinion was welcomed by Swedish unionists.

"This is a huge success, now the ball is in the government's court," TCO chief legal head Samuel Engblom told Lag&Avtal.

The Laval Law puts limits on Swedish unions' right to strike action in order for guest workers to be included in collective bargaining deals. The precedent flies in the face of ILO convention 87, its legal experts noted.

"The committee currently looking at Laval will now have a big incentive to look at ILO conventions and not just EU law," said Engblom.

TT/The Local/at

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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.