Sweden: Latest working life developments – Q1 2018

The ongoing debate about the right to strike and research into new ways of working and the impact on workers are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Sweden in the first quarter of 2018.

Welcome progress on port conflict, but strikers’ rights at risk

Signs of progress emerged in the longstanding industrial conflict at the Port of Gothenburg. Central to the dispute is the Swedish Dockworkers’ Union’s (SDU) demand to have its own collective bargaining agreement with site owner, APM Terminals. While the company’s offer of an extension to its agreement with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union (STWU) remains unacceptable to the SDU (which organises 85% of port workers), a new re-opening of talks between the two unions hints at a breakthrough. There are no straightforward solutions to the dispute, although there is speculation that the unions could merge or find other ways to break the deadlock over member representation.

Employers’ organisations, other unions and policymakers welcomed the developments and several parties now call for an end to a review of legislative options to end to the conflict. To the unions’ dismay, a Government representative has denied any plans to abandon the review, fuelling fears of a weakening of strikers’ rights. For more background on the Port of Gothenburg, see the Q2 2017 Update

New ways of organising work: more responsibility for workers 

Part-time employment often equates to full-time work, according to evidence presented by the trade union, Unionen. The survey findings [Swedish] on the experiences of Unionen members (white-collar workers in the private sector) showed that 4 in 10 employees who switch to part-time hours do not notice a corresponding difference in workload. In fact, part-time work often means having to do the same job, in a shorter time. The findings indicated that, in white-collar roles, reducing individuals’ working hours and wages by 20%, for example, rarely translates to a 20% reduction in emails and meetings.

The Swedish Work Environment Authority published a related research review on new ways of organising work and the consequences for health and the working environment. The review covered material published during 2000–2018 from the Swedish and international academic literature, grey literature and media content. The review identified three organisational trends:  flexibilisation; individualisation and informalisation; and bureaucratisation.

Flexibilisation takes on many forms, such as in the organisation of physical environments, with flex and activity based offices, and can also mean the deregulation of employee-employer relationships. Flexibilisation is also visible in an increase in flexible forms of work, such as fixed-term employment and project employment. Individualisation means employees receive more responsibility for managing their employability and career development. This, in turn, relates to the informalisation of working life, which is manifested in the growing importance of informal criteria in the labour market, like personal traits and attitude, social skills and personal networks. Bureaucratisation leads to increased formalisation and standardisation, control, documentation and a focus on tangible goals.

According to the author, many of the trends involve more employee responsibility. In the short term, this can mean that employees need to be proactive, precise, planning orientated and comfortable with prioritising tasks. In the longer term, it can mean taking on more responsibility for employment security and being contactable outside of working hours, which can prevent proper recuperation.

Commentary

In the second quarter of 2018, the debate on the right to strike is likely to intensify. The Government’s final report  on the review of strike regulations comes out at the end of May, and many unions fear an increased risk of ‘yellow unions’ (unions dominated or influenced by an employer) and ‘agreement shopping’. Another hot topic next quarter is likely to be the centre-right opposition parties’ threat to shut down Sweden’s public employment services, should they win the September elections. The centre-right is unhappy with the services’ performance and accuses them of failing to match workers with employers.

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