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The Local's guide: Should you join a union as a foreigner in Sweden?

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The Local's guide: Should you join a union as a foreigner in Sweden?
Unions cost money to join, so here are the benefits to know about and points to weigh up. Photo: Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se
13:25 CEST+02:00
For many international workers in Sweden, joining a trade union might not be something that crosses your mind, especially if it's not common in your home country. Here are the benefits and key things to bear in mind when considering joining.

Sweden has one of the world's most unionized workforces, with around 70 percent of workers a member.

You can choose to join a union that's related specifically to your profession (for example, Lärarförbundet for teachers, Sveriges Ingenjörer for engineers) or one which covers a wider range. Swedish trade unions are grouped into three umbrella organizations: The Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) which is traditionally for blue-collar professionals; the Confederation for Professional Employees (TCO) traditionally for white-collar professionals; and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Saco).

One reason some people join a union is the belief that this gives workers more power to organize and gain better conditions as a group, but there are also some benefits for individual members. These are some of the most common ones, which might well be a factor in whether you choose to join a union and which one you pick if so.

Help in your current employment

The function of trade unions that most people will be familiar with is their role as mediator in any disputes or negotiations between you as an employee and your employer.

In cases of termination or dismissal (the two different ways you can lose your job in Sweden), you are entitled to consultations with your union, while in cases of redundancy, employers are supposed to carry out and complete consultations with the union before giving an employee their notice. If unfair dismissal is suspected, your union will usually negotiate for you and take the employer to labour court if needed.

READ ALSO: Six top tips for job seekers in Sweden

Help with career development

Many unions offer information on salary statistics within your industry, giving you concrete data on the market rate to work with when you next have a pay negotiation.

Other help is also often available, such as CV reviews and career coaching, although this is often only available in Swedish. And you may also be entitled for financial support to cover the costs of job-related training and materials.

Unions also often offer talks and courses free of charge for their members; Unionen runs workshops on topics from handling stress at work to how to run meetings efficiently for their members across the country, while Ledarna's courses are focused on becoming a better boss, and other unions have courses specifically aimed at teachers, healthcare professionals, engineers, and so on.

Again, these will mostly be held in Swedish, so if you're not comfortable with the language yet, it's a good idea to contact any union you're considering joining to ask what professional development is available in English.

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Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Financial support

It's not just the cost of training that might be covered by your union.

It's often possible to get a discount on a mortgage or other loan if you're a union member; this is because the banks see you as a safer bet, partly due to the income insurance which we'll explain later.

Other offers might include discounts with certain travel partners (hotels, train companies, and sommarstugor), online courses, insurance policies (such as home, travel or gadget insurance, since income insurance typically comes included anyway), health and fitness (gyms or even spas), leisure items (books) and so on.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about annual leave in Sweden

Kollektivavtal

Collective bargaining agreements, known as kollektivavtal in Swedish, are a set of working agreements which are agreed between employers and union representatives.

They usually regulate wages (for example by setting pay bands for different titles or responsibilities), working conditions (including maximum hours per week, overtime for hours outside your typical working week, and more), holiday (many offer an extra week of paid holiday on top of the five weeks annually which is the legal minimum, and some agreements offer another extra week's holiday for over-40s), and other perks which could range from pension agreements to friskhetsbidrag (a supplement you can use to pay for gym memberships and other sporting activities) and policies regarding sabbaticals.

Because of all these possible benefits, and the fact that you as an individual employee don't need to negotiate for them yourself, workplaces that offer kollektivavtal are seen as highly attractive to workers in Sweden. 

But the key thing to know here is that you don't need to be a union member to be covered by one, and even if you are a union member, the kollektivavtal may not apply. Around 90 percent of workplaces are covered by a kollektivavtal, and this only applies if the employer chooses to recognize a certain union. When a kollektivavtal applies, it applies to all members regardless of any union affiliation.

It is worth noting that Sweden's labour laws are relatively generous, so even if you are not a member of a union, you do still enjoy quite a lot of rights as an employee.

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Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

A-kassa

If you lose your job, in Sweden you're entitled to unemployment insurance (arbetslöshetsförsäkring), which is around 350 kronor per day, working out to around 8,000 kronor per month before tax. Many workers in Sweden are also members of unemployment funds, called arbetslöshetskassa or a-kassa, which means you pay a monthly fee and, if you become unemployed after at least one full year of a-kassa membership, you're entitled to a higher amount of unemployment insurance.

The amount is usually salary-based, typically 80 percent of your former salary, but there is often a salary cap (so that even if you earned over that amount, you won't receive extra unemployment insurance). It's also often possible to pay in extra money to a-kassa, which would entitle you to a higher amount of insurance in the event of unemployment. 

All of the funds except one (Alfa-kassan) are linked to unions, but you don't need to be a member of a union to join an unemployment fund, and can even join one that's linked to a different union than the union you are a member of, as long as you meet the requirements. 

When it comes to choosing an a-kassa, you should check the eligibility requirements and compare the costs (typically around 100-150 kronor per month, sometimes varying based on salary), and how much they would pay out in the event of unemployment, paying attention to any salary caps or time limits.

For example, Sveriges Ingenjörer pays 80 percent on salaries up 100,000 kronor for up to 150 days, whereas at Unionen on salaries up to 60,000 kronor for up to 150 days, and Sveriges Journalistförbundet pays 80 percent of salaries up to 60,000 kronor but only for a maximum of 100 days.

Costs and applying

Membership varies between the unions, and there are often different rates for different salaries, and there are usually reductions for students or members who become unemployed.

If you're eligible for more than one union, for example if you belong to a profession like teaching which has two dedicated unions or if you're choosing between an industry-specific union and a more general one, you should weigh up not only the costs but also how much value you think you'd get from each option.

That's particularly important if one union offers perks you're certain to use, such as study scholarships or lower rates on mortgages, and if that doesn't apply, you might take into account how relevant the training and career advice sounds. 

You can apply online via the union's website, or contact them directly for any specific questions.

READ ALSO: 10 things Sweden should do to make life better for international talent

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