‘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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INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

The Local's Paul O'Mahony interviewed Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg, lecturer at Stockholm School of Economics and researcher at the Center for Responsible Leadership about the Swedish style of leadership.

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

Does Sweden have a distinctive management style?

The Swedish style of leadership is often said to be characterised by so-called flat hierarchies, where everyone is able to – and expected to – contribute their ideas and input to tasks, regardless of whether they are in a leadership role or not.

Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg told The Local that there are a number of different aspects which can influence management style, although Sweden does have a distinct style.

“I think that there’s definitely an idea that there is a specific Swedish or Scandinavian management style,” she said. “But I think from a research perspective, it’s much more complex, because we tend to generalise or stereotype.”

“It’s got a lot to do with the company culture and the culture of the country,” Karlberg said, “There’s definitely an idea of Scandinavian leadership, I think we have a common idea of what that is, but then, is it actually practiced everywhere in Scandinavia or in Sweden? That’s another issue.”

“In many of our organisations we talk about Scandinavian leadership where the leadership is very international, it’s a mix of different people from different cultures.”

Sweden is a very individualist society, which is also reflected in Swedish business.

“I think the core of what we talk about when we talk about Swedish leadership is the fact that leaders and managers also call on co-workers to take ownership on the task and individualism comes into business,” Karlberg said.

“It’s even expected, and co-workers take that ownership, and they engage and they take responsibility for the outcome and the result. So it’s the total opposite of micro-management in that sense.”

This culture of ownership and engagement also applies to managers, Karlberg explained.

“To generalise, in a Swedish setting, if there’s a meeting with the boss, the co-workers will expect to be listened to, and to be involved in a conversation and give their opinion on things. And that’s also a way to motivate people, in a Swedish sense.”


Can lead to cultural clashes

This expectation in Swedish workplaces can lead to clashes if employees from other countries are used to a different system, Karlberg said.

“In another culture, say Finland, for example – I’m just generalising – you go to a meeting with your boss and you expect the boss to motivate you and to tell you what to do. So if you had a Finnish manager in a Swedish context, Swedish co-workers would probably feel neglected or frustrated for not being involved. ‘No-one asked my opinion, I want to share my opinion, my opinion matters'”.

This can also happen in situations where a Swedish manager is managing a group of employees from a different culture or country.

“A Finnish crowd with a Swedish manager might be very frustrated if the manager just asks questions and doesn’t seem to have a direction of their own. There’s just different expectations”.

However, there is also a collective aspect to Swedish workplaces, which foreigners working in the country often pick up on.

“When I work with international crowds, they tend to notice that Swedish co-workers and managers are very collective, they want to have consensus, they have to discuss everything, and it takes forever and it can be very frustrating.”

Swedish co-workers aren’t afraid to speak up though, if they feel that the decision their manager is making is wrong.

“But there are a lot of behaviours where Swedish co-workers will not accept a decision. For example, if they feel that the idea that their manager is bringing is wrong, it will actually be their duty to speak up, not in a confrontational way, but to say ‘Hmm, you know, this idea about doing it this way, it’s probably not a good idea.'”

“And non-Swedish managers might not always appreciate that kind of reaction. And if it continues, and the manager says that this is the way we’re gonna do it, the typical Swedish coworker will insist that this is the best way, and then there is a clash – again, they expect to be listened to and taken into consideration.”

How do you know when a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace?

This need to feel informed and included in decision-making can in some cases make it difficult to understand at exactly what point a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace.

“It’s a different process,” Karlberg said. “It often involves a calculated plan for taking the time to introduce the decision, discuss it, and make people feel that they have been informed.”

This aspect of the Swedish workplace culture caused issues during the pandemic, when many employees began to work from home.

“Decisions are taken in a much more informal way, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when something was decided. And we also saw that during the pandemic, that the typical Swedish organisation – which is very non-hierarchical – suffered a lot, because a lot of leadership is practiced in an informal work environment.”

“So when people were taken away from that environment – because suddenly they were working from home – it was sort of, you know, ‘how do we practice leadership now?’, whereas in an organisation with a much clearer hierarchy, it was never an issue where decisions were made or how leadership was practiced, because it was done in a different way.”

“And in the more informal, flatter organisations, we had to find a different way to do that, to translate into the virtual room.”

Despite this, Karlberg does believe that Sweden’s leadership style is effective.

“I would say that it is, yes. We stand out pretty well as a nation when it comes to different types of national measurements of competitiveness. We score quite high on that. Of course, there’s also a drawback, if people don’t want to take that responsibility and ownership, because then it’s not typical that the manager would step up and change the leadership style. So it depends on whether you actually share the same expectation.”

Where does the Swedish leadership style come from?

Sweden’s collaborative leadership style is perhaps a product of Sweden’s history, Karlberg said.

“We have always been a small country, very dependent on export. And that means that we had to adapt to the rest of the world and to other markets, but also having to collaborate – we’re too small to quarrel or fight.”

“This has been a way to bring people together in the same direction – it’s a little bit like how we work with the unions with much more of a collaborative focus instead of being confrontative, because it’s simply not rational for a small country like us.”

There’s also a strong tradition of independence in Sweden, Karlberg explained.

“There’s a genuine tradition of independence in the sense of mutual respect. And of course, a lot happened during the 20th century with the development of equality and the whole idea of individualist thinking. Where we’re individualistic with regard to family, with regard to gender, with regard to our roles in society.”

“I think that plays a part as well, with equality and also that everyone matters in that sense.”

You can hear Paul O’Mahony’s interview with Karlberg in our Sweden in Focus podcast where we discuss all aspects of life in Sweden and shed light on the latest Swedish news. Listen and subscribe.