How this union supports and serves academics in Sweden

As the repercussions of the Swedish government's controversial Aliens Act rumble on, international doctoral candidates and researchers in Sweden should make themselves aware of the benefits of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) union. Here's why.

How this union supports and serves academics in Sweden

Many doctoral candidates and researchers in Sweden from overseas have not had a great last couple of years. First there was the pandemic that hugely disrupted their education and their work.

And then there’s the Swedish government’s Aliens Act, which could, almost unintentionally, end up expelling thousands of international PhD graduates and researchers from the country. 

There’s been some recent good news, however, with a new package of labour immigration laws containing some laws which could make it easier for certain immigrants to apply for a work permit in the country.

A new kind of residence permit, also referred to as a “talent visa”, will be introduced for certain highly-qualified, highly-educated individuals, which will certainly benefit some international academics in Sweden.

These changes have come following a long and painstaking campaign by the SULF union, which has been campaigning for the rights of its 22,000 international academic members in Sweden.

International academic? Find out more about the Swedish union just for you

Many of those international academics joined SULF to avail themselves of the union’s legal advice and various protections, but there are additional benefits to SULF membership that many members may not be aware of.

Paulina Rajkowska has been studying in Sweden for 10 years, first as a Master’s and now for her PhD in Human-Computer Interaction at Uppsala University. She joined SULF four years ago.

“Basically, all my friends were saying ‘you must join the union’, and ‘you must join so you can get your a-kassa unemployment benefits sorted out’ and that was it. That was the only reason I was given. I had no idea there was anything else to it.”

“The variety of benefits you get is wonderful, of course.”

As well as the income insurance, you’re entitled to free employment advice, as well as free legal insurance, and discounts off various insurances, including house insurance aimed especially at guest researchers.

But Paulina quickly learnt that was so much more to joining a union such as SULF.

“Trade unions are marginalised in Poland where I’m from. The unions have no say in employment or working conditions. So if you join a union, it’s more of an idealistic statement – like donating to a charity. It has no application to real life – none. But in Sweden unions are part of the fabric of society. They are an important part of the ‘Swedish Model’.”

The ‘Swedish Model’ is the catch-all term that describes several typically Swedish systems, including fundamental labour laws designed to protect workers’ rights.

David Rule, a lecturer in mathematics at Linköping University, and member of SULF

Based on the division of responsibilities between the state and trade unions, the two work in tandem to guarantee good working conditions and fair treatment of everyone working in Sweden.

As a result, 70 per cent of the Swedish workforce belongs to a union, compared to 10.3 per cent of American workers and 23.7 per cent of British workers.

The collective bargaining agreements (kollektivavtal) which form the basis of ‘the Swedish Model’ of the working conditions in each sector are determined by the trade unions and the employer organisations. The government rarely interferes, though it may set the boundaries through labour laws.

“This was one of the most striking things about moving to Sweden,” says David Rule, a lecturer in mathematics at Linköping University, and a member of the board for the university’s SULF branch.

“That’s why there is no minimum wage in Sweden – there is no need for one because unions work with the employers to ensure fair pay. It is absolutely nothing like the UK.”

When David first arrived in Sweden in 2012 he, like Paulina, was encouraged to join SULF

“I joined the union and then I was asked if I wanted to join a committee and I did because I was interested and then I soon realised that I could do good work. As a mathematician, I focus on my work and often go into my own little world, and for a while that’s all that really matters. But actually, there is a world outside of that. And there are important questions in that world.”

“How do we work together? What sort of university do we want? How can we make the university better? This is all work we can do in SULF. This is work that matters.”

David also became more aware of how important SULF’s work was with international doctoral candidates and researchers.

“There’s the question of just getting to know the system as an outsider. You’re not from Sweden, so you don’t know how pay negotiations work. You don’t know what rights you have. You don’t know how you can move on to the next stage of your career in Sweden. There’s a lot in common with other countries and academics do move around a lot, but nevertheless, everything’s very much affected by the local rules. So in that sense the union is set up to help people who are new to the country, so that they know what they need to know.”

Paulina Rajkowska is studying for her PhD in Human-Computer Interaction at Uppsala University

Are you an overseas researcher who wants to find out more about academic life in Sweden? Learn more about SULF

For Paulina the fact the union was a part of the national dialogue was an eye-opener.

“Soon after I joined SULF I was asked what I would like to change in the world. I was shocked that anyone was interested in my thoughts about this. And then I thought it would be nice if researcher employment was a bit more secure, and that we don’t have to constantly burn out. That would be amazing, right? If half of our department wasn’t on sick leave every half a year, that would be great.”

Paulina was also given the tools by the union to start work on these huge issues. “I was a little cynical that we could have any impact. But then the union said, ‘Let’s share some ideas, let’s write some articles, let’s reach out to people we want to support and try to make a difference’, and I think that feeling of being able to change things is everything to me. Just knowing that, if I put in this work, it’s not time wasted. It actually does reach someone and it does change something for someone. And very often that blows my mind.”

Sweden is very different to where Paulina studied before. “In Poland, you do not speak to your teacher until you are spoken to, you don’t ask questions, you show up for the exams, and then basically chase after the teachers and be nice to them, so they give you a good grade.”

David underlines how SULF works with universities to give students more input into the education process. “We’ve talked recently about how courses should be evaluated, and how students have the right to comment on courses and have some sort of influence on lectures. It’s important that students are listened to.”

Being in the union isn’t just about committees and work, however.

“It’s very sociable,” says Paulina. “Us academics are used to ploughing our own furrow, only meeting up with other people in our field. But being involved in the union means meeting people from all sorts of other disciplines. It’s so collaborative and fun and inspiring. And then there’s this idea that my work matters, and I can contribute to something bigger than myself. I assumed being in the union would be one thing but then once you get into it, it turns out it’s this whole new world.

“And it’s not what you thought it would be. It’s just so much more.”

Learn more about SULF and how 22,000 international academics and researchers in Sweden are already benefiting from membership

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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

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