‘Either in or out’: Three foreigners who feel shut out of Swedish jobs market by strict labour laws

While Sweden's unions and trade bodies talk over Sweden's hiring and firing laws, The Local spoke to three foreigners who argue that, rather than protect them, the laws as they stand have shut them out of the labour market.

'Either in or out': Three foreigners who feel shut out of Swedish jobs market by strict labour laws
Many foreigners who move to Sweden find themselves trapped in a chain of short-term contracts. File photo: Anna Shevets/Pexels
Negotiations are currently ongoing over how to reform the Employment Protection Act, called Lagen om anställningsskydd in Swedish and usually referred to simply as LAS.
Sweden's Social Democrats committed to reforming the law under the January agreement which won it the backing of the economically liberal Centre Party.  
A review into the law, published in June, proposed allowing companies to exempt up to five employees from the 'last in, first out' rule during any round of layoffs, and to exempt companies of fifteen employees or less completely from this rule. While the existing laws protect people who have jobs, some argue they make companies reluctant to give people permanent employment.
This is particularly a problem for foreigners trying to establish themselves in Sweden, who complain that they are routinely let go before the end of their six-month probationary period. 
Others are given a series of short contracts, so-called 'korttidsanställning', and then laid-off before they have worked so many days that the company has to give them a permanent job under Swedish law.
Maria: “It's very hard for foreigners to be strategic”
Maria (not her real name), an Italian woman living in Malmö, left academia after she discovered that LAS meant that she was forever bouncing between short-term contracts. 
“You have the equivalent of I don't know how many days, and then they'll have to kind of lock you in and hire you permanently, or not,” she explains. 
“And in the meantime, what you're given is, say, six months of teaching, and you take it because you're hoping to build up experience, reputation, or whatever. And then, time is ticking.” 
“What happened to me in my previous job [at Lund University] was that I ran out of time. They couldn't give me another year [on a short-term contract], and so they were forced to actually hire me permanently. So what they did was that the same day they hired me permanently, they already started the procedures to fire me. 
“Formally, I had permanent employment, but actually, they were already making sure that at the end of the period they needed me for I would be let go because of what they call 'lack of work'.”

The main university building at Lund. Photo: Emil Langvad/TT
She then got teaching work at the nearby Malmö University before running into the exact same problem again. And she says many people end up in her position, working up to two years before they must be either let go or offered permanent employment, at workplace after workplace.

“You ended up spending eight years of your life going from one temporary position to the other without ever being being permanently hired, and in the meantime, you do these kind of temporary gigs. You're normally given just teaching. And so it's really hard to find time and resources to write a book, or publish.” 
She said that foreigners in Sweden, who understand the system less well, are much less able to make the move to permanent employment. 
“Swedes don't just know the rules, but they play the game as insiders. It's about knowing the right people and being strategic. And I think it's very hard for foreigners to be strategic in a foreign system,” she said.
Despite her left-wing politics, Maria has come to support the proposals to reform LAS that the economically liberal Centre Party demanded in January 2019 in exchange for supporting the Social Democrat-led government. 
“Part of me thinks it would be a good thing. If you're permanent, then you're really safe. Nobody will move you. And that's nice, I guess. I will never know,” she explained. “But the real problem is that in academia, you leave an underground of people who are really exposed. There's no middle way. You're either in or you're out. I think the labour laws should catch up with how things are, particularly in academia.” 
Sylvia: “Before I moved to Sweden I had never, ever lost a job before”
Sylvia Rence has had two jobs in Sweden, and both times was laid off just before her six-month probationary period was over. 
“I didn't speak any Swedish when I moved here so I got the first English-speaking job I could find, two months after landing here, in customer support for a tech startup in Stockholm. They laid me off two weeks before my six months were up, with no warning or cause.
“I thought that was obviously a one-off thing — shady company, shady people, bad luck, what have you. Two weeks later I got another English-speaking job, in Uppsala. Another tech startup but much longer established. The job was in one of my actual fields (marketing). A month after I started, another girl started as well, same department. It was a great job, an awesome place with lovely people all around. I loved it,” she said.
“Two weeks before my six months were up, they laid me off, citing costs and the pandemic. A month later, they also laid off the girl that started after me, also two weeks before her six months were up. One month after we were both gone, they hired someone else. 
“The whole thing has been disheartening and I think that for expats, especially non-Swedish speaking expats, we get stuck in a cycle of unemployment and underemployment in part because of this extremely long probationary period.”
Sylvia Rence, from Canada, has found the experience bruising. Photo: Private. 

Xavier: “It's literally delaying the advancement of companies”
Xavier (not his real name) was hired by the Stockholm branch of a major accountancy firm, but let go with just one months' notice just before his six month probationary period was up. He believes this was not to do with his performance or business needs, but as a way to avoid giving him the rights that come with permanent employment. 
“I clearly saw that they were trying to get rid of me before I got to the six months, because many people came after me, actually. And after six months, it was going to be very difficult for them to get rid of me. I've seen other examples.” 
Xavier has since got a permanent job in compliance with one of the biggest Scandinavian banks, but he still thinks that Sweden's strict employment laws act as a barrier to foreigners trying to enter the labour market and should be reformed .
“I think it's a perfect way to go,” he says of the LAS reforms. “Many people I've seen in my area of work, are there just because it's very difficult for the company to get rid of them, so I think it's very good that they change the law so people stay by merit, and not only by seniority.” 
“I would say the law is outdated now. It's very good once you're in, but for a lot of people who could provide a way better vision, it's a hindrance for them. It is stopping them from getting into the labour market.” 
He said that his field — bank compliance — has faced huge problems in the Nordic region, with scandals at many of the major banks. 
“The Nordics require a lot of people to work in compliance, and they will not find this expertise with local people, they are not going to find it with 'Matilda Andersson', they need to find someone from outside. So I would say that the first thing is to get rid of this law, which provides a lot of certainty and security to the employee, but it's literally delaying the advancement of the companies, if they want to be world class, right?”

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EXPLAINED: Can you negotiate a pay rise in Sweden to offset inflation?

With Sweden's central bank expecting inflation of nearly 8% this year, everyone working in the country is in line for a real-terms pay cut. We asked Gunilla Krieg, central ombudsman at the Unionen union, what scope there is to negotiate a salary hike to compensate.

EXPLAINED: Can you negotiate a pay rise in Sweden to offset inflation?

With Sweden’s central bank expecting inflation of nearly 8% this year, everyone working in the country is in line for a real-terms pay cut. We asked Gunilla Krieg, central ombudsman at the Unionen union, what scope there is to negotiate a salary hike to compensate.

How soon can I get a pay rise to compensate for high inflation? 

Probably not for a while. 

About 90 percent of workers in Sweden are covered by the collective bargaining agreements made between employers and the country’s trade unions. The last round of salary deals was negotiated at the union-employer level back in 2020, and most of them will remain valid until March or April next year.

This means that most employees in Sweden will not see their salaries adjusted to take inflation into account for at least nine months. 

“Under this special model that we have, we already have a level for the wage increases for this year, so you can’t get compensation for the inflation right now,” Krieg explained. 

You might be able negotiate a pay rise in addition to what the unions have agreed in your personal salary review, she added. 

“Of course, you have that freedom. Whether you work in a small company, or a big company, a company that has a collective agreement, or one that doesn’t, you always have the freedom to ask for a salary rise,” Krieg said. 

The only issue is that most unionised companies only offer personal salary reviews once a year, and for the majority of employees, the window of opportunity passed in the spring. 

“You have to find out when you have a salary review as part of the collective agreement you have at your own workplace,” Krieg recommended. “For most collective agreements, that is in the spring, although some collective agreements have it in the autumn.” 

What if I’m not part of a union? 

If you are among the 10% of workers not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, you can ask for a pay rise whenever you like, but unlike union members, you have no right to a pay rise. The decision is wholly up to your employer. 

Gunilla Krief is the central ombudsman for the Unionen union. Photo: Patrik Nygren/Unionen

So will the unions eventually negotiate above-inflation pay increases? 

Probably not. 

Unions in Sweden have historically been quite responsible, and understood the risk of creating a wage-price spiral by demanding wage increases that match or exceed inflation.

“Twenty-five years ago, we had a really high wage increases in Sweden, and we had very, very big inflation, so people got more money in their wallets, but they couldn’t buy anything, because inflation went up much higher than wages,” Krieg explained, putting the union perspective.

“We always take responsibility for the entire labour market, and that’s good in the long term,” she added. “There’s been much more money in the wallet for employees in Sweden over the past 25 years. That’s why we think we should we should not panic because of inflation. It may be that for one year it will mean less money in the wallet, but in the long run we benefit.” 

Can I argue for an inflation-busting pay rise in my salary review? 

You can certainly argue for a pay rise of 8 percent, or even more, but you don’t cite inflation as a reason for it. 

“Everything is individual, so you can, of course, negotiate up your salary, and there is no limit to how much you can ask for,” Krieg explained.

“If you have a job or an education for which there’s a shortage on the Swedish market, then you can get a much higher wage increase. Up in the north of Sweden, where we have [the battery manufacturer] Northvolt, and we have mines and the steel industry, they are looking for a lot of competence right now, and there you can have a much higher rise in wages.” 

But, particularly if you’re covered by collective bargaining, you can’t really cite inflation as justification, as that is one of the factors that unions and employers are supposed to factor in during their negotiations. 

What’s the best way of getting a big pay rise? 

The best way to get a pay hike of as much as 5,000 kronor or 10,000 kronor a month, Krieg suggests, is to apply for other jobs, even if you don’t end up taking them. 

“You can get offers from other companies, and then you can tell your employer that ‘I really liked it here, I enjoy this work, and I want to stay here, but now they are offering me 10,000 kronor more at another company, and if you can raise my salary like that,  of course I will stay here’,” she said.

In a normal salary interview, she adds, it’s important to be able to demonstrate your results. Look again at your job description, and what your goals are for the year, and identify concrete achievements that meet or exceed these goals. If you have any additional duties, you can cite them to argue for a higher salary. If you’ve done any courses, or learned any skills, you can cite these. 

At any time in the year, if your superiors praise any work you have done, keep those emails, or write it down, so that in your salary review, you can say, “you said that this report I did was ‘the best you’ve ever seen’,” or such like. 

Finally, you should find out in advance if there are any salary criteria being applied, so that you can argue that you exceed them, and so demand a higher raise than that agreed for the company as a whole with the union.