Substantial damages paid to dismissed safety steward

In Sweden, safety stewards have special powers that other trade union representatives do not. They also enjoy a special legal protection. Recently, when an electronics company summarily dismissed a safety steward on the grounds that he had refused to obey the supervisor's orders, the case ended in October 1997 with the safety steward receiving substantial damages.

In mid-October 1997, the Swedish Metal Workers' Union (Metallindustriarbetareförbundet) and the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries (Verkstadsföreningen) arrived at an amicable settlement in which a safety steward was awarded substantial damages.

The background to the case was an incident at Ericsson Components AB, an electronics company, a few months earlier. The enterprise had had a water leakage which led to an interruption in production. When the supervisor felt that work could be resumed, the safety steward refused to accept the decision. He feared that it might be dangerous to start the electric machines, since nobody knew the extent of the damage to the production system. He also told his colleagues that they did not have to continue work, if they were afraid. Ericsson Components dismissed him without notice.

The Metal Workers' Union sued the employer before the Labour Court demanding that it declare the dismissal unlawful. In addition to lost wages, the union claimed damages to the employee for violation of the Security of Employment Act and of the rules safeguarding the right of association in the Act on Joint Regulation of Working Life (or the Co-determination Act). These rules protect both employers' and employees' rights to belong to and work for an organisation.

The two sides quickly found an amicable settlement. The details of the settlement are not known publicly, but the gist is that the employee agrees to leave his employment while being paid a large sum of money. The case illustrates the special powers and the protection that safety stewards have in Swedish law.

Right to paid leave

According to the Work Environment Act, there must be safety stewards in all workplaces with five or more employees. The safety stewards - there can be more than one depending on the size of the workplace and the nature of the activities - are elected by those local unions that have, or normally have, collective agreements with the employer. If there is no collective agreement, the safety steward is elected directly by the employees.

In order to be able to perform their duties, the safety stewards have special protection and rights. Neither the employer nor fellow workers may interfere with their work. They must not be given less important job tasks or impaired employment conditions for being safety stewards, and after completing a period as safety steward a worker has the right to go back to his or her old job or a job which is at least equal to the one he or she may have left when assuming the responsibility.

Like all other elected trade union representatives, safety stewards have the right to take paid leave to perform their safety duties. How much time that is needed for the everyday work environment function and how that time is to be scheduled must be agreed with the employer. But the Work Environment Act, which unlike the Act on the Status of Trade Union Representatives applies also to workplaces not covered by collective agreements, gives the safety steward the right to leave his or her ordinary job tasks in the event of an accident or imminent danger and to spend the time he or she feels is necessary to deal with this emergency.

Supervision and participation

The reponsibility for the working environment satisfying the requirements of the law - and for taking the necessary measures - is always with the employer. However, the safety steward must supervise the protective measures against ill health and accidents and, if need be, push the employer to pay attention to the views of the employees in all kinds of decisions which relate to the working environment.

If the employer is planning changes which will affect the working environment, the safety steward must be consulted at an early stage. This might concern the design or redesign of premises (worksites), the purchase of new equipment or the use of dangerous substances. It could also be a question of changes of work processes, working methods or work organisation. The safety steward also participates in the work of adjusting the workplaces to the particular needs that some workers have and in the rehabilitation of employees who have become sick or injured.

The safety steward may also on his or her own initiative ask the employer to investigate different aspects of the work environment. If the employer fails to satisfy the wishes of the safety steward within a reasonable time or at least informs him or her of planned measures, the safety steward can turn to the government Labour Inspectorate, which can order an injunction or prohibition, if necessary under penalty of a fine.

Authority to interrupt work

To disobey the order of supervisor, as the safety steward at Ericsson Components did, is normally a serious breach of the employment contract, but safety stewards have the authority to interrupt work when they think that a particular job involves such an imminent danger to the life or health of an employee - eg an acute danger of injury - that it cannot be allowed to continue. However, if it is at all possible, the safety delegate should first contact management. If the manager does not share his or her opinion, or if the danger is so imminent that there is no time to wait for the manager, the safety steward may stop work, while waiting for the Labour Inspectorate. Solitary work may also be stopped "if necessary from the safety point of view", eg if the employee is exposed to very strong psychological pressure. The same applies if an employer defies an injunction of the Inspectorate, for example by running a machine, the use of which the authority has forbidden.

The safety steward does not risk having to pay damages for the adverse effects of the interruption of work. However, in the worst of cases, his or her colleagues may lose their wages, since these are not protected by the Work Environment Act. Nevertheless, the Labour Court has decided that employees are entitled to their pay during the stoppage, provided that the safety steward had reason to stop work. This means that he or she must have considered the problem carefully and acted in such a responsible manner that the decision is justifiable. However, the Court says, the framework must not be so narrow that the safety stewards dare not make use of their rights, when this is urgent for safety and health reasons.

Commentary

Swedish employees have comparatively strong employment security, and trade union representatives such as safety stewards have a particular protection. If the employer refuses to re-employ a worker in spite of a court having declared the dismissal or the notice to quit invalid, the employer must pay damages according to the Security of Employment Act. The longer the employment has lasted, the higher the damages. According to this "price list" a worker who has been employed for two years, such as the safety steward in the Ericsson Component case, is entitled to the equivalent of 16 months' wages. This, and the fact that he was also a trade union representative, gives one an idea of how much he must have received for accepting to leave his employment. ( Margareta Edling, NIWL)

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