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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.

READ ALSO:


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

WORKING IN SWEDEN

CHECKLIST: Here’s what you need to do if you move away from Sweden

What authorities do you need to inform before you leave, are you liable to Swedish tax and how can you access your Swedish pension? Here's a checklist.

CHECKLIST: Here's what you need to do if you move away from Sweden

Tell the relevant authorities if you’re leaving for more than a year

If you’re planning on leaving Sweden for more than a year, you will have to let the authorities know. The main authorities in question are Skatteverket (the Tax Agency) and Försäkringskassan (the Social Insurance Agency).

Försäkringskassan

You have to tell Försäkringskassan when you leave so they can assess whether or not you still qualify for Swedish social insurance. As a general rule, you aren’t eligible for Swedish social insurance if you move away from Sweden, but there are exceptions, such as maternity or paternity benefits if you’re moving to another EU country.

This also applies to any family members who move with you – any over-18’s should send in their own documentation to Försäkingskassan about their move abroad. If you’re moving abroad with anyone under 18, you can include them in your own report to Försäkringskassan.

If both legal guardians are moving abroad together, both need to include any children in their application. If one legal guardian is moving abroad and the other is staying in Sweden, you need the guardian staying in Sweden to co-sign your application. If you are the sole legal guardian of any under-18’s travelling with you, you don’t need any documentation from the other parent.

You can register a move abroad with Försäkringskassan on the Mina sidor service on their website, here (log in with BankID).

Skatteverket

If you are moving abroad for a year or longer, you also need to tell the Tax Agency. This also applies if you were planning on moving abroad for less than a year but ended up staying for longer.

If you move to another Nordic country, you will also need to register your move with that country’s authorities if you will be there for six months or more. You’ll be deregistered from the Swedish population register the same day you become registered in another Nordic country’s register.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll lose your personnummer – you’ll still be able to use it if you ever move back to Sweden – but you will no longer be registered as resident in Sweden.

Similarly to Försäkringskassan, you will also need to report any children you are bringing with you, and both legal guardians must sign the form, whether or not both guardians are moving abroad or not.

In some cases, you may still be liable to pay tax in Sweden even if you live abroad – particularly if you are a Swedish citizen or have lived in Sweden for at least ten years. This could be due to owning or renting out property in Sweden, having family in Sweden, or owning a business in Sweden.

You can tell the tax agency of your plans to move abroad here.

Contact your a-kassa, if relevant

If you are member of a Swedish a-kassa (unemployment insurance), make sure you tell them that you’re leaving the country. As a general rule, you have unemployment insurance in the country you work in, so you will most likely have to cancel your a-kassa subscription.

If you are moving to another country with the a-kassa system, such as Denmark or Finland, it may pay to wait until you have joined a new a-kassa in that country before you cancel your membership in Sweden.

This is due to the fact, in some countries, you only qualify for benefits once you fulfil a membership and employment requirement. In Sweden and Denmark, you must have been a member for 12 months before you qualify. In Finland, the membership requirement is 26 weeks.

If you qualify for a-kassa in Sweden before you leave the country, you may be able to transfer your a-kassa membership period over to your new a-kassa abroad and qualify there straight away, but this usually only applies if your period of a-kassa membership is unbroken.

Check what applies in your new country before you cancel your membership in Sweden – your a-kassa should be able to help you with this.

Contact your union, if relevant

Similarly, if you are a member of a Swedish union or fackförbund, let them know you’re moving abroad.

If you’re moving to another Nordic country, they might be able to point you in the direction of the relevant union in that country, if you want to remain a member of a union in your new country.

If you’re moving to another EU country, you may be able to remain a member of your Swedish union as a foreign worker with the status utlandsvistelse.

If you chose to do this, you will usually pay a lower monthly fee than you do in Sweden, and they can still provide assistance with work related issues – although it may make more sense to join a local union in your field with more knowledge of the labout market.

If you don’t want to be a member of a union in your new country and don’t want to be a member of a Swedish union, you should contact your  union and ask them to cancel your membership.

Collect relevant documents regarding your Swedish pension

If you have worked in Sweden and paid tax for any length of time, you will have paid in to a Swedish pension. You retain this pension wherever you move, but you must apply for it yourself.

To do so, you will need to give details of when you lived and worked in Sweden, as well as providing copies of work contracts, if you have them. If you have these documents before you leave Sweden, make copies so that you can provide them when asked.

If you move to the EU/EES or Switzerland, you may also have the right to other, non-work based pensions, such as guarantee pension for low- or no-income earners, or the income pension complement (inkomstpensionstillägg).

Currently, you can receive your Swedish pension once you turn 62 – although there is a proposal in parliament due to raise pension age to 63 for those born after 1961 from 2023, so this may change.

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