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Sweden should ban free ‘slavery’ job trials

Asking people to participate in unpaid job trials before they are offered full-time employment is a ruthless way to exploit them and the practice should be banished, writes Leif Håkansson from Swedish labour union IF Metall for this week's debate article.

Sweden should ban free 'slavery' job trials
Shopping around for staff is very different to grocery shopping. Photo: Nico Södling/Image Bank Sweden
 
"Try working with us for free for a week. We want to see what you've got to offer before we talk about employment."
 
Does it work the same way if I want to try out a new store?
 
"Hey! I want to try shopping for free for a few days to test how good you are. Perhaps I will become a customer afterwards."
 
Job trials are becoming more common. Unscrupulous employment agencies send out trial staff to their clients, so they can see what newcomers have to offer.
 
A job appointment is a business deal. An employer pays money to employees who work. Voluntary, free work for good causes is OK. Involuntary free work that makes someone money is slavery.
 
The less scrupulous employers may argue that free work is voluntary: "You choose if you want to take it." But this approach does not work when unemployment is high. When people do almost anything to be considered for any job.
 
"Hey! I heard that you're a good bank and I am thinking about becoming a customer. But first I want to test out borrowing money for free for a while."
 
I do not think the banks would queue up to have me. Nor grocery stores either if I offered them the same conditions.
 
In a fair society, we should put an end to unfair competition. We should not allow free labour which could give some companies an advantage over competitors who pay wages to their employees. This could damage the reputation of reputable companies.
 
We should not allow some employers to avoid paying insurance because those who work for free are given no insurance coverage at all.
 
Free trial work is a ruthless way to exploit people. Many of those who accept these kind of decisions are dependant on finding work. They are prepared to work for a week without pay or insurance in a small garage, in a café, in a cleaning firm or for an employment agency.
 
In companies with collective agreements there is always a minimum wage and free work is not possible. In other Swedish firms there is no statutory minimum wage and it's not a crime in Sweden to have staff working for free.
 
Perhaps there is a need to change the law to stop this kind of 'employment' or at least to improve communication so that all 'offers' of trial jobs are more visible and transparent. What employers are doing in terms of free labour should be fully in the spotlight. We should refuse to allow them to offer bad conditions for 'staff'. 
 
But above all this should happen alongside efforts to push down unemployment. That is the root of all this evil.
 
Leif Håkansson is lead Ombudsman for Swedish trade union IF Metall. This article is an abridged, translated version of his debate article originally published in the Gothenburg Post.
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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place. 

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