Poor pay for summer jobs may lead to revision of central agreements

Newspaper reports of local authorities paying school pupils on summer jobs an hourly wage of SEK 8, and in some cases even allowing private employers to "borrow" them, attracted a great deal of attention in July 1997. Both trade unions and the Ministry of Labour are now investigating the facts, and the Municipal Workers' Union is considering calling for the reintroduction of the abolished provisions on minimum wages for workers under 18 years of age in central sectoral collective agreements.

With nine weeks holidays, most Swedish upper secondary school pupils want a job for some part of the summer. The high rate of unemployment has, however, made it increasingly difficult for them to find a job, since nowadays they have to compete with applicants belonging to the regular workforce.

This caused the Minister of Labour and Nordic Affairs, Margareta Winber, to exhort the local authorities to find some kind of summer job in 1997 for all upper secondary school pupils who wanted one. However she would not allow the municipalities any extra money for this. Ms Winberg and her colleague Leif Blomberg, responsible for youth matters, also wrote a letter to 10,000 large companies, encouraging them to give more young people an opportunity to work during the holidays, for example by hiring two persons on a part-time basis instead of one full-timer. Earning something is better than earning nothing, and giving pupils some contact with working life, however small, is better than having no contact at all, they wrote.

Not regular work

Summer came, and on 20 July Sweden's largest morning paper published an investigation showing that in some municipalities boys and girls worked for payment far below normal wage . The most startling example came from the municipality of Strängnäs, which paid them SEK 8 per hour plus SEK 22 a day for lunch (in comparison, the collectively agreed minimum wage for the youngest blue-collar workers in the low-income sectors is about SEK 33 per hour). Some of the schoolchildren did not even work for the municipality itself but for private companies such as shops and restaurants, which did not have to pay them a penny in addition to the sum that they received from the municipality.

The local government commissioner responsible failed to understand the criticism that followed the article. The reason for not paying more was that the arrangement should be seen as a form of PRAO (a period of practical occupational experience that is a part of the nine-year compulsory school period), she explained. The boys and girls concerned did not perform "regular work".

The local representative of the Municipal Workers' Union (Kommunalarbetareförbundet) confirmed to EIRO that this was the intention. "There are however indications that some employers have used the young people in a way that was not intended", he stated. The local authority of Strängnäs now plans to carry out enquiries with the employers and the young people concerned to identify any such cases.

The Municipal Workers' Union, for its part, will convene its regional representatives in August to obtain an overall picture of what really happened in Strängnäs as well as in other municipalities. A spokesperson for the union, Jan Sjölin, pointed out that the union still does not know the true dimensions of the problem, but if it turns out to be on a large scale, the Municipal Workers' Union will demand that minimum wages for workers under 18 years of age are reintroduced in central sectoral collective agreements. Such provisions were included in the agreements until 1992, when they were abolished as part of an overall reform of the wage system.

The reason was that there are very few "regular" employees under 18 nowadays: most jobs require that entrants have gone through upper secondary school. Furthermore, when the old provisions were still in force many of the union's regions asked permission to negotiate exemptions from minimum wages, for example in cases where the work also constituted a form of education or therapy, according to Mr Sjölin.

Local agreements

The Municipal Workers' Union claims that it never intended to hand over the setting of wages for workers under 18 entirely to the employers by abolishing the provisions in the central agreement for the sector: "We commissioned our regions to conclude local agreements, but some of them never did this. And we certainly did not think of SEK 8 per hour!"

The Commercial Employees' Union (Handelsanställdas Förbund) and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union (Hotell och Restauranganställdas Förbund) are also investigating whether private companies which are members of employers' organisations have used boys and girls for regular work without paying for it. If so, the employers will receive a bill in due course. Unlike the agreement for the municipalities, the agreements for these sectors stipulate minimum wages for workers from 16 years of age, and the employers have a contractual obligation to the union to pay every worker according to the agreement, irrespective of trade union membership.

Furthermore, Minister Winberg has declared that she wants to meet the trade unions and employers' organisations, hoping that they will help to create a better system for next year's summer holidays.

However, this is not only a matter of summer jobs and school pupils, saysPelle Johansson, who is the official responsible for youth issues at the blue-collar Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO). During the 1990s, employers' organisations called for various categories to be exempted from the agreed minimum wages, and new proposals are awaited in the bargaining round this autumn. The large majority of LO unions have resisted them so far, but apart from the Municipal Workers' Union, there are a few others which have agreed to deviate from the principle that the provisions regulating wages shall comprise all workers. In 1990, the Union for Service and Communication Employees (SEKO) - at that time called the State Employees' Union - gave up minimum wages for workers under 18 in its most important central agreements. The Graphical Workers' Union (Grafiska Fackförbundet) did the same in 1995. This worries Mr Johansson, because once the trade unions start to compromise with fundamental principles there is a risk that the whole collective system will be undermined.

Commentary

The central trade union officials are now adopting a remarkably cautious approach compared to the strong declarations cited in the daily newspapers, and point out that the facts may be more complicated than the impression conveyed by the media reports. Considering the many stumbling-blocks that can already be foreseen in the next bargaining round, it is not very likely that the events of this summer will be an important issue in the negotiations. A few regional and local trade union branches can, however, be expected to pay more attention to the working conditions of pupils on summer jobs next year. (Kerstin Ahlberg, NIWL)

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