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Why are strikes so rare in Sweden?

Around 1,000 port workers were involved in industrial action this week, when a dockworkers' union organized a strike and employers responded with a lockout. But in general, workers in Sweden strike much less than in almost every other country in the world.

Why are strikes so rare in Sweden?
Dockworkers on strike in Malmö earlier this week. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

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“Sweden has many fewer working days lost due to strikes, lockouts and labour disputes than other Nordic countries, even though we have by far the biggest labour market,” says Per Ewaldsson from the National Mediation Institute, which mediates in labour disputes when they occur.

“Looking further afield, at international statistics, it seems that generally Sweden is among the countries which loses the fewest working days,” Ewaldsson tells The Local.

The Mediation Institute's own statistics show that on average 21,000 working days have been lost per year due to industrial action over the past decade, with a major strike by a healthcare workers' union, among others, in 2008 contributing to 106,801 lost workdays that year alone. The figure for 2017 was only 2,570 lost days. The figure for the past decade is significantly less than the 84,000 days a year not worked in Finland over the past decade, which rose to 128,000 in Norway and was almost 300,000 in Denmark.

In Sweden, only 0.6 days per 1000 workers were not worked in 2017 due to industrial action, according to statistics from the International Labour Organization, which compared to 8.9 in Norway and 45.2 in Spain. And there were six strikes or lockouts in Sweden in 2017, the ILO data shows, compared to 79 in the UK and 426 in Denmark.

If a trade union, employers' organization or individual employer is considering industrial action, they are required to inform not only their counterpart but also the Mediation Institute. This is in contrast to countries like France and Italy, where strikes tend to precede negotiations or occur alongside them, rather than be called as a last resort.

Ewaldsson does not have exact figures for how many of these mediations are unable to resolve the conflict, but according to him “in most cases” a solution is reached before any industrial action takes place.

MY SWEDISH CAREER: The Local interviews international workers in Sweden

A miners' strike in Kiruna in 1969. Photo: Pressens bild/TT

Sweden has a long history of strikes, with the first major one occurring at the Sala silver mine in 1552 when miners refused to work – though these workers were accused of mutiny and imprisoned by the king at the time. Throughout the 20th century, there were multiple strikes including those organized by unions (the Swedish Trade Union Confederation or LO was founded in 1898) and others organized by employees alone.

One milestone came in the form of the 1997 Industrial Agreement (Industriavtalet) between unions and employers' organizations, which was replaced by a new version in 2011. These agreements regulate collective agreements (kollektivavtal); the agreements between employers and unions on issues such as pay levels, working conditions and benefits. 

One of the main effects this has is to regulate wage increases, to ensure that employees continue to get real wage increases but also that Sweden can be competitive in a globalized economy, because wage increases in other sectors won't push up pay so much that companies are forced to cut jobs or even relocate abroad. And the fact is that wages have increased steadily in real terms since the turn of the century, meaning employees may be more likely to be satisfied with their working conditions so that strikes aren't necessary.

“If you look at labour disputes historically, they were much more common in earlier decades than they are now. Back then, it was a very different country with many more social tensions and where income levels were much lower, also in relation to other countries – it was a much poorer country,” explains Ewaldsson.

“One part of the explanation is that the labour market model functions relatively well, not least in the way competitiveness is secured in collective agreements at the same time as real wage increases are secured. There's a basic consensus that this is good for a small exporting country like Sweden. A guideline for our mediators is that they should not propose solutions to conflicts which would exceed the wage increases agreed in industry. That's really the top priority.”

ALSO FOR MEMBERS: Everything you need to know if you lose your job in Sweden

A rail strike in France brought trains to a standstill last year. Photo: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

The biggest exceptions to the rule are independent trade unions; those which are not part of the LO. This includes the Dockworkers' Union which called this week's strike, as well as the alternative left-wing Central Organization of the Workers of Sweden (Syndikalisterna or SAC).

Other unions, particularly the builders' union and the municipal workers' union, have also held strikes and threatened industrial action on several occasions.

There have also been so-called wildcat strikes, organized by workers without the authorization of their union. One recent example is the Stockholm waste collectors' strike in summer 2017, when dozens of workers walked out over a pay dispute. But that was later ruled as unlawful by Sweden's Labour Court, because it took place during the term of a collective agreement.

This highlights another reason strikes are comparatively rare in Sweden: the strength of the unions. Unions represent around three quarters of workers in Sweden, and strong unions are likely to be able to negotiate reasonable terms with employers' organizations. Again, this stands in contrast to France, which has Europe's highest number of trade unions but the lowest rate of union membership, creating competition between them which may encourage strikes to win the support of frustrated workers.

ALSO FOR MEMBERS: What to do if you need a sick day in Sweden

While it might be tempting to draw a link between the stereotypes associated with a country and its attitudes to strike: the hot-heated French versus the 'lagom', conflict-averse Swedes, the frequency of strikes comes down to a combination of factors relating to how the labour market is set up, and how the economy of each country works.

This in turn affects how strikes are viewed by fellow workers. In southern Europe, there is often a higher level of sympathy for striking workers seen as standing up for their rights, especially in countries which were hard hit by the recession.

In Sweden, many workers accept that their rights are already protected by kollektivavtal and the strong union movement, and some argue that strikes can be damaging to Sweden's export-reliant economy. This is particularly evident in a dockworkers' strike last year, which risked impacting the movement of goods in and out of the country and even led to the Liberal Party proposing that the right to strike be restricted.

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For members


TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner

For seasoned or aspiring cooks who’ve found a new life in Sweden, now might be the perfect time to join the Scandinavian culinary scene, argues Matthew Weaver, a writer and chef based in Malmö. 

TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner

In the wake of the global “Great Resignation”, restaurants and hotels are desperate for staff, and foreigners working in Swedish kitchens are finding themselves with higher bargaining power and unprecedented leverage with prospective employers.

Chicago transplant, Matan Levy, Chef-Owner of the award-winning Two Forks Hummus Shop in Malmö, tells the Local:  “It’s become an employees’ market. Back in the day, in the US, if you didn’t want to work for the terms that were offered – low wages, long hours, etc. there were plenty of people who would happily take your place. If you wanted good terms you had to put in the time.”

“That isn’t the case anymore. Now, it’s much more common to be having discussions about terms that I could only dream of as a young cook, even after 20-plus years in the industry.”

Levy runs Two Forks along with his Swedish wife Charlotte. 

Matan Levy, chef owner of Malmö restaurant Two Forks, in his kitchen. Photo: The Local.

What’s drawing foreign chefs to the Swedish food scene? 

The Scandinavian food trend kicked off in the early 2010s, when Copenhagen’s Noma won World’s Best Restaurant three consecutive years in a row,  attracting waves of customers and cooks drawn to New Nordic cuisine.

Soon after, Ethiopian-Swedish chef, Marcus Samuelsson, of Aqavit fame, opened his New York restaurant Red Rooster Harlem, introducing Scandinavian fusion. This combined Swedish classics, such as pickled herring and meatballs, with American Soul Food and Ethiopian cuisine. 

Cooks from abroad have found themselves working in Scandinavia, where restaurants have been freed up, with less emphasis on old-school “brigade” hierarchy, and more emphasis on collective creative input.

Another part of the attraction is the culture of forward-thinking, innovative food, with an emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Comparatively higher overall pay and benefits, working conditions, gender equality and attention to work-life balance continue to attract an international labour force.

Should you find yourself seeking work in Swedish “kök”, here are a couple essentials to acquaint yourself with to help ensure you aren’t tossed out of the frying pan and into the fire.

First things first…do you need to speak Swedish?

Seldom would this be in issue. In many, if not most, kitchens in major Swedish cities, English is tolerated and commonly accepted as a working language. Besides Swedes, you’ll often find yourself working alongside people from every continent.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t and won’t be picking up a little svenska as you go. After a handful of shifts, you’ll often find yourself forgetting words for certain fruits, vegetables and utensils in your native tongue, and most likely acquiring an expressive battery of Swedish curse words to alleviate stressful moments on the line (see here and here)

Will you need a fancy Culinary School degree?

Not really, but there can be exceptions (on paper at least). For instance, when applying to the Nordic hotel chain, Scandic – especially for Sous or Head Chef positions. They state in their job listings that it’s a plus to have “completed cooking training or have acquired the corresponding skills in another way..”. But for the industry as a whole, it’s mostly unnecessary, and “skills in another way” could be open to clever interpretation.

Employers will want you to come in for a few (paid) trial shifts to “see how we get along with each other.” For the inexperienced, graft, a good attitude and eagerness to learn goes a long way.  These days, after all, you can consult a wealth of detailed, encyclopaedic cookbooks, as well as brush up on knife skills and mother sauces on Youtube.

If a senior cook or chef is unwilling to spend time running through the basics, have no shame in marching out the door and into the next restaurant, which is probably a stone’s throw in any direction. The archetypical, overbearing, spiteful boar of a chef has thankfully become near extinct in the last decade, and you need not worry about having a plate or searing pan cast in your direction.

Is cash-in-hand payment a good idea?

Best avoided. If you work cash-in-hand, your employer does not pay any social security contributions for you, nor do you pay tax on your income. The Swedish Tax Agency may require that you pay the unpaid tax in arrears. Working cash-in-hand is also considered a criminal offence and could result in up to two years jail time.

Rights, Contract, Salary, “kollektivavtal”

Cook’s salaries for the most part haven’t increased by much in recent years, but with present demand for skilled, experienced workers you’re stacked with cards that would’ve held less value pre-pandemic.

A collective bargaining agreement (‘kollektivavtal’) negotiates an assortment of working and salary conditions agreed between employers and union representatives such as the HRF (Hotel and Restaurant Union). Around 70 percent of Swedish employees are members of a trade union and 90 percent are covered by collective agreements.

Though none of the Nordic countries have a statutory minimum wage, and there is no law to regulate people’s salaries or salary increases, Sweden uses collective agreements, often differentiated by age, skill or seniority, as a mechanism for setting the base. The base is currently 140.69 kronor (€13.65) per hour without professional experience and 151.09 kronor (€14.66) for those with six or more years of professional experience.

While it is up to you to keep track of current salary trends, if your job is covered by a collective agreement, your employer may not pay you anything below the fixed minimum salary.

Besides salary, there are a number of other benefits worth brushing up on. Sick pay and holiday pay is governed by law, while overtime pay and pay for “inconvenient” (‘ob-ersättning’) hours (evenings, nights, and weekends) falls under collective agreements.

If the type of work you do is not covered by a collective agreement, check that the terms of other existing kollektivavtal agreements are incorporated into your own written contract of employment. It is important to get hold of this as soon as possible. By law, you are entitled to a contract within a month of starting your job. Salary reviews should be encompassed in the terms of your employment contract.

A-kassa, and union help

Joining a union is a good way to secure your income in the event of unemployment.

All unions have unemployment funds and income insurances (‘a-kassor’) which are designed to keep you solvent and cover up to 80 percent of your salary during periods of unemployment, although a-kassa can be joined independently of a union, monthly membership is generally much cheaper.

Unions such as HRF will provide help with information regarding salary review and intervention in the case your employer doesn’t provide the salary you are entitled to; act on your behalf in case of conflict, unjust working conditions, discrimination, or bullying, as well as helping you to navigate the ins and outs of your pension, insurance for work injuries, illness, unemployment and parental leave.

Tips and tipping culture

Because robust unions help ensure that restaurant and bar workers in Sweden get exceptionally good hourly wages, it’s possible for folk to make a decent living that’s up to scratch without getting any tips at all.

Though tipping, or dricks, isn’t nearly as prevalent as in the US and Canada (where restaurant owners often use tipping as a pretext to offer low wages to their staff), customers here often round up to the nearest amount of the bill. This will usually be gathered and accumulated over the course of a month or two, to be split amongst service and kitchen staff, eventually ending up added to your paycheck.

The (often daunting) process of obtaining Work Permits/Visas for non-EU members.

Finding work in Sweden as a third-country national has unfortunately become complicated and time-consuming. It is crucial to start your search well before arrival, as you will need an employment offer in order to obtain a work permit.

Keep in mind that before a job can be provided to a third-country national, employers must ensure that they have clearly advertised and made the position accessible to Swedes first. If there is no interest from local or EU talent, third-country nationals can be considered.

The Public Employment and Swedish Migration Agency are known to update and share a ‘labour shortage list’, pertaining to jobs in high demand. Cooks and other restaurant workers are currently in that category

You’ll find plenty of information regarding registering with the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) and obtaining a personal ID number on their website, likewise with Arbetsformedlingen (Public Employment Service) and Migrationsverket (Migration Board), the latter of which explains the often tedious and exacerbating process regarding work permits for non-EU members. The Local clarifies both here