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Should foreign workers in Sweden join a union?

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.

Should foreign workers in Sweden join a union?
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

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.

How to kick-start your Swedish career: Six top tips for job seekers
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 workers 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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For members

WORK PERMITS

How foreigners can get on the fast track for a work permit in Sweden

It can now take about six months to get a work permit in Sweden, and a year for an extension. Here's how you can get on the fast track.

How foreigners can get on the fast track for a work permit in Sweden

How long does it normally take to get a permit to work in Sweden? 

According to the calculator on the Migration Agency’s website, 75 percent of first work permit applications are completed within three months, and 75 percent of work permit extensions are completed within 14 months. 

These numbers, though, are only for people in non-risk industries. If you are applying for a job in the cleaning, building, hotel and restaurant, or car repair industries — all of which are seen as high risk by the agency — applications can take much longer to be approved. 

For these industries, the calculator suggests a long 12-month wait for a first application and a 17-month wait for an extension. 

This is because of the higher number of unscrupulous employers in these industries who do not pay foreign workers their promised salaries, or do not fulfil other requirements in their work permit applications, such as offering adequate insurance and other benefits. 

So how do you get on the fast track for a permit? 

There are two ways to get your permit more rapidly: the so-called “certified process” and the EU’s Blue Card scheme for highly skilled employees. 

What is the certified process?

The certified process was brought in back in 2011 by the Moderate-led Alliance government to help reduce the then 12-month wait for work permits.

Under the process, bigger, more reputable Swedish companies and trusted intermediaries handling other applications for clients, such as the major international accounting firms, can become so-called “certified operators”, putting the work permit applications they handle for employees on a fast track, with much quicker processing times. 

The certified operator or the certified intermediary is then responsible for making sure applications are ‘ready for decision’, meaning the agency does not need to spend as much time on them. 
You can find answers to the most common questions about the certified process on the Migration Agency’s website

How much quicker can a decision be under the certified process? 
Under the agreement between certified employers and the Migration Agency, it should take just two weeks to process a fresh work permit application, and four weeks to get an extension. 
Unfortunately, the agency is currently taking much longer: between one and three months for a fresh application, and around five to six months for an extension. 
This is still roughly half the time it takes for an employee seeking a permit outside the certified process. 
The Migration Agency told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in a recent article that in September the average decision had taken 105 days, while over the year as a whole, applications for certified companies had taken 46 days, and those for non-certified companies 120 days. 

How can someone planning to move to Sweden for work take advantage of the certified process? 
Unfortunately, it is very much up to your employer. If you are planning to move to Sweden for work, you should make sure to ask prospective employers if they are certified, or sub-certified through an intermediary firm, and take that into account when deciding which company to take a job with. 
Smaller IT companies are often not certified, as they tend to start off by recruiting from within Sweden or the European Union. 
If you have begun a work permit application with a company that is not certified or sub-certified, then you cannot get onto the fast track even if your employer gets certified while you are waiting for a decision. 
The certified process can also not be used to get a work permit for an employee of a multinational company who is moving to the Swedish office from an office in another country. 
If my employer is certified, what do I need to do?
You will need to sign a document giving power of attorney to the person at your new company who is handling the application, both on behalf of yourself and of any family members you want to bring to Sweden.  
You should also double check the expiry date on your passport and on those of your dependents, and if necessary applying for a new passport before applying, as you can only receive a work permit for the length of time for which you have a valid passport. 

Which companies are certified? 
Initially, only around 20 companies were certified, in recent years the Migration Agency has opened up the scheme to make it easier for companies to get certified, meaning there are now about 100 companies directly certified, and many more sub-certified. 
To get certified, a company needs to have handled at least ten work permit applications for foreign employees over the past 18 months (there are exceptions for startups), and also to have a record of meeting the demands for work and residency permits.  
The company also needs to have a recurring need to hire from outside the EU, with at least ten applications expected a year. 
The Migration Agency is reluctant to certify or sub-certify companies working in industries where it judges there is a high risk of non-compliance with the terms of work permits, such as the building industry, the hotel and restaurant industry, the retail industry, and agriculture and forestry. 
Most of the bigger Swedish firms that rely on foreign expertise, for example Ericsson, are certified. 
The biggest intermediaries through whom companies can become sub-certified are the big four accounting firms, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG, and Vialto (a spin-off from PwC), and the specialist relocation firms Human Entrance, and Alpha Relocation. Bråthe estimates that these six together control around 60 percent of the market. Other players include K2 Corporate Mobility, Key Relocation, Nordic Relocation, and some of the big corporate law firms operating in Sweden, such as Ving and Bird & Bird. 

What is the EU Blue Card, how can I get one, and how can it help speed up the work permit process? 
Sweden’s relatively liberal system for work permits, together with the certification system, has meant that in recent years there has been scant demand for the EU Blue Card. 
The idea for the Blue Card originally sprung from the Brussels think-tank Bruegel, and was written into EU law in August 2012. The idea was to mimic the US system of granting workers a card giving full employment rights and expedited permanent residency. Unlike with the US Green Card, applicants must earn a salary that is at least 1.5 times as high as the average in the country where they are applying.
Germany is by far the largest granter of EU blue cards, divvying out nearly 90 percent of the coveted cards, followed by France (3.6 percent), Poland (3.2 percent) and Luxembourg (3 percent).

How can I qualify for a Blue Card?

The card is granted to anyone who has an accredited university degree (you need 180 university credits or högskolepoäng in Sweden’s system), and you need to be offered a job paying at least one and a half times the average Swedish salary (about 55,000 kronor a month).

How long does a blue card take to get after application in Sweden? 

According to the Migration Agency, a Blue Card application is always handled within 90 days, with the card then sent to the embassy or consulate named in the application.

In Sweden ,it is only really worth applying for a Blue Card if you are applying to work at a company that is not certified and are facing a long processing time.

EU Blue Cards are issued for a minimum of one year and a maximum of two years. 

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