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WORKING IN SWEDEN

TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner

For seasoned or aspiring cooks who’ve found a new life in Sweden, now might be the perfect time to join the Scandinavian culinary scene, argues Matthew Weaver, a writer and chef based in Malmö. 

TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner
A cook prepares a plate of food at the Stockholm Bangladeshi restaurant Muskot. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

In the wake of the global “Great Resignation”, restaurants and hotels are desperate for staff, and foreigners working in Swedish kitchens are finding themselves with higher bargaining power and unprecedented leverage with prospective employers.

Chicago transplant, Matan Levy, Chef-Owner of the award-winning Two Forks Hummus Shop in Malmö, tells the Local:  “It’s become an employees’ market. Back in the day, in the US, if you didn’t want to work for the terms that were offered – low wages, long hours, etc. there were plenty of people who would happily take your place. If you wanted good terms you had to put in the time.”

“That isn’t the case anymore. Now, it’s much more common to be having discussions about terms that I could only dream of as a young cook, even after 20-plus years in the industry.”

Levy runs Two Forks along with his Swedish wife Charlotte. 

Matan Levy, chef owner of Malmö restaurant Two Forks, in his kitchen. Photo: The Local.

What’s drawing foreign chefs to the Swedish food scene? 

The Scandinavian food trend kicked off in the early 2010s, when Copenhagen’s Noma won World’s Best Restaurant three consecutive years in a row,  attracting waves of customers and cooks drawn to New Nordic cuisine.

Soon after, Ethiopian-Swedish chef, Marcus Samuelsson, of Aqavit fame, opened his New York restaurant Red Rooster Harlem, introducing Scandinavian fusion. This combined Swedish classics, such as pickled herring and meatballs, with American Soul Food and Ethiopian cuisine. 

Cooks from abroad have found themselves working in Scandinavia, where restaurants have been freed up, with less emphasis on old-school “brigade” hierarchy, and more emphasis on collective creative input.

Another part of the attraction is the culture of forward-thinking, innovative food, with an emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Comparatively higher overall pay and benefits, working conditions, gender equality and attention to work-life balance continue to attract an international labour force.

Should you find yourself seeking work in Swedish “kök”, here are a couple essentials to acquaint yourself with to help ensure you aren’t tossed out of the frying pan and into the fire.

First things first…do you need to speak Swedish?

Seldom would this be in issue. In many, if not most, kitchens in major Swedish cities, English is tolerated and commonly accepted as a working language. Besides Swedes, you’ll often find yourself working alongside people from every continent.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t and won’t be picking up a little svenska as you go. After a handful of shifts, you’ll often find yourself forgetting words for certain fruits, vegetables and utensils in your native tongue, and most likely acquiring an expressive battery of Swedish curse words to alleviate stressful moments on the line (see here and here)

Will you need a fancy Culinary School degree?

Not really, but there can be exceptions (on paper at least). For instance, when applying to the Nordic hotel chain, Scandic – especially for Sous or Head Chef positions. They state in their job listings that it’s a plus to have “completed cooking training or have acquired the corresponding skills in another way..”. But for the industry as a whole, it’s mostly unnecessary, and “skills in another way” could be open to clever interpretation.

Employers will want you to come in for a few (paid) trial shifts to “see how we get along with each other.” For the inexperienced, graft, a good attitude and eagerness to learn goes a long way.  These days, after all, you can consult a wealth of detailed, encyclopaedic cookbooks, as well as brush up on knife skills and mother sauces on Youtube.

If a senior cook or chef is unwilling to spend time running through the basics, have no shame in marching out the door and into the next restaurant, which is probably a stone’s throw in any direction. The archetypical, overbearing, spiteful boar of a chef has thankfully become near extinct in the last decade, and you need not worry about having a plate or searing pan cast in your direction.

Is cash-in-hand payment a good idea?

Best avoided. If you work cash-in-hand, your employer does not pay any social security contributions for you, nor do you pay tax on your income. The Swedish Tax Agency may require that you pay the unpaid tax in arrears. Working cash-in-hand is also considered a criminal offence and could result in up to two years jail time.

Rights, Contract, Salary, “kollektivavtal”

Cook’s salaries for the most part haven’t increased by much in recent years, but with present demand for skilled, experienced workers you’re stacked with cards that would’ve held less value pre-pandemic.

A collective bargaining agreement (‘kollektivavtal’) negotiates an assortment of working and salary conditions agreed between employers and union representatives such as the HRF (Hotel and Restaurant Union). Around 70 percent of Swedish employees are members of a trade union and 90 percent are covered by collective agreements.

Though none of the Nordic countries have a statutory minimum wage, and there is no law to regulate people’s salaries or salary increases, Sweden uses collective agreements, often differentiated by age, skill or seniority, as a mechanism for setting the base. The base is currently 140.69 kronor (€13.65) per hour without professional experience and 151.09 kronor (€14.66) for those with six or more years of professional experience.

While it is up to you to keep track of current salary trends, if your job is covered by a collective agreement, your employer may not pay you anything below the fixed minimum salary.

Besides salary, there are a number of other benefits worth brushing up on. Sick pay and holiday pay is governed by law, while overtime pay and pay for “inconvenient” (‘ob-ersättning’) hours (evenings, nights, and weekends) falls under collective agreements.

If the type of work you do is not covered by a collective agreement, check that the terms of other existing kollektivavtal agreements are incorporated into your own written contract of employment. It is important to get hold of this as soon as possible. By law, you are entitled to a contract within a month of starting your job. Salary reviews should be encompassed in the terms of your employment contract.

A-kassa, and union help

Joining a union is a good way to secure your income in the event of unemployment.

All unions have unemployment funds and income insurances (‘a-kassor’) which are designed to keep you solvent and cover up to 80 percent of your salary during periods of unemployment, although a-kassa can be joined independently of a union, monthly membership is generally much cheaper.

Unions such as HRF will provide help with information regarding salary review and intervention in the case your employer doesn’t provide the salary you are entitled to; act on your behalf in case of conflict, unjust working conditions, discrimination, or bullying, as well as helping you to navigate the ins and outs of your pension, insurance for work injuries, illness, unemployment and parental leave.

Tips and tipping culture

Because robust unions help ensure that restaurant and bar workers in Sweden get exceptionally good hourly wages, it’s possible for folk to make a decent living that’s up to scratch without getting any tips at all.

Though tipping, or dricks, isn’t nearly as prevalent as in the US and Canada (where restaurant owners often use tipping as a pretext to offer low wages to their staff), customers here often round up to the nearest amount of the bill. This will usually be gathered and accumulated over the course of a month or two, to be split amongst service and kitchen staff, eventually ending up added to your paycheck.

The (often daunting) process of obtaining Work Permits/Visas for non-EU members.

Finding work in Sweden as a third-country national has unfortunately become complicated and time-consuming. It is crucial to start your search well before arrival, as you will need an employment offer in order to obtain a work permit.

Keep in mind that before a job can be provided to a third-country national, employers must ensure that they have clearly advertised and made the position accessible to Swedes first. If there is no interest from local or EU talent, third-country nationals can be considered.

The Public Employment and Swedish Migration Agency are known to update and share a ‘labour shortage list’, pertaining to jobs in high demand. Cooks and other restaurant workers are currently in that category

You’ll find plenty of information regarding registering with the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) and obtaining a personal ID number on their website, likewise with Arbetsformedlingen (Public Employment Service) and Migrationsverket (Migration Board), the latter of which explains the often tedious and exacerbating process regarding work permits for non-EU members. The Local clarifies both here

 

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WORK PERMITS

INTERVIEW: Are Sweden’s liberals ready to fight for work permits?

Sweden's liberal work permit system is under assault from the Social Democrats, but Tove Hovemyr from the liberal Fores think tank is worried liberal right-wing parties have lost the appetite to fight back.

INTERVIEW: Are Sweden's liberals ready to fight for work permits?

For Tove Hovemyr, public policy expert at the liberal think tank Fores, the employer-led immigration law Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Alliance government brought in back in 2008 marks the high watershed of Sweden’s formerly enlightened approach to migration. 

“Sweden became the most liberal labour migration system in all of the OECD countries,” she tells The Local’s Paul O’Mahony in this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast.  “And this has been very successful and great, most of all for Sweden’s growth and labour market situation, but also for our competitiveness in the globalised world that we live in.” 

The 2008 law scrapped Sweden’s old system of arbetsmarknadsprövning, Sweden’s version of the so-called “labour market test”  where the unions and the government would assess which were the roles, professions and industries where Sweden had a shortage of skilled workers.

“It basically says that if someone has offered you a job in Sweden with a wage that is adequate, and that also follows Swedish labour market regulations and so forth, then you were welcome to come from a third country to Sweden and work,” she explains of the 2008 law. “It was not dependent on whether there was a shortage of workers in a sector or industry. And this is still the law that exists in Sweden.” 

However, this liberal law, which has enabled so many people to come and build their lives in Sweden, is now under threat from both left and right. 

Changes to work permit laws which come into force on June 1st already make work permits harder to secure, requiring applicants already to have a signed contract before applying for a work permit, and also to prove that they can support any family they bring. 

But at the end of April, the Social Democrats announced plans to reverse the Reinfeldt reforms and bring back the labour test, while the Moderate Party wants to limit work permits to those on salaries of 27,000 kronor a year. 

“What we can see now is that both the Social Democratic Party and the Moderate Party now want to restrict Sweden’s liberal labour migration regulations in different ways,” Hovemyr says. 

The Social Democrats’ proposal would return Sweden to the pre-Reinfeldt past, while the Moderates’ proposed threshold, she argues, would mean drastic reductions in labour migration. 

“A lot of the labour migration that we have today, and which we also need, like berry pickers, people at restaurants and hotel workers, would not measure up to this level,” she says of the Moderates’ threshold. 

She sees the push to tighten up labour migration laws as part of the broader anti-migration backlash that began in Sweden in the 1990s but which really took off with the refugee crisis of 2015. 

“The refugee crisis of 2015 shook most policymakers to the core,” Hovemyr says. “Even the most liberal politicians were suddenly in favour of a more restrictive policy, some due to new personal convictions, and some due to the public attitudes towards migration. From a more pragmatic point of view, it is now very hard to be pro-immigration in Sweden.” 

Partly, she concedes, this reflects a toughening of attitudes across the world.

“We’ve seen a fast increase in right-wing populism and nationalism all over the liberal democracies. This is not a development isolated to Sweden, quite the opposite. Sweden is actually not the worst in class.” she argues. “This is a part of a wave of  populism going all over the western countries, and the immigration debate in Sweden is just a part of it.” 

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Hovemyr believes the next battle will be over labour migration. 

“Besides the question of asylum policy, one of the biggest fights we will see, I think, in the years after this election, will be labour migration policy,” she says. “Just as the general attitude in the public policy debate is that it’s hard to be pro-migration, it is also hard to be pro labour migration.” 

Her fear is that there seem to be few politicians ready to fight for the liberal labour migration that she believes has brought Sweden so many benefits. 

“What concerns me is that when these proposals came from the Social Democrats in late April, I didn’t see the defensive reaction from politicians who support liberal labour migration policy that I would have expected,” she says. 

“This is concerning, because I think that many still sees being pro-migration as something dangerous, and it might mean that the fight to keep liberal labour migration laws won’t be as great as I would hope.”

Tove Hovemyr was interviewed by Paul O’Mahony for this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast. 

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