Conflict between social partners over proposed work environment changes

A letter issued by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprises proposing changes to the Work Environment Act has led to a heated debate among the social partners. Trade unions are opposed to the suggestion of reduced power for safety representatives and increased power for the employers. The employer organisations, on the other hand, want more individual responsibility for the work environment, in addition to new measures to deal with abuse of safety representatives’ role.

At the end of April 2009, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) sent a letter to the Swedish government with a proposal to reform the country’s Work Environment Act (Arbetsmiljölagen). The move followed an initiative, over a two-year period, to collect the views of the confederation’s member organisations with regard to Sweden’s work environment regulation.

Controversial debate ensues

Since the letter was issued, a heated debate has arisen between trade unions and the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise regarding the working environment and safety representatives’ position and power at the workplace. The trade unions are accusing the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise of taking advantage of the current crisis in order to reduce the trade unions’ power and to diminish their responsibility regarding work environment issues. However, the confederation argues that it wants to increase the importance and status of work environment activities at the workplace, not the other way around. It is accusing the trade unions of generating conflict for no real reason and states that both parties in fact agree on the basic principles of the matter.

The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise is calling for a change to and clarification of the Work Environment Act. For their part, the trade unions want to discuss work environment issues within the framework of collective agreements, where it is possible to adjust the regulation for each sector if necessary instead of changing the Work Environment Act.

Proposed changes to Work Environment Act

The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise believes that the Work Environment Act has not kept pace with developments and therefore that it is necessary to modify the act. In particular, the confederation has put forward the following proposals.

  • Safety representatives at the workplace should not be able to use the ‘stop production right’ as a form of alternative strike action. The confederation wants to introduce individual responsibilities for the safety representatives and the right for employers to give indemnities so that safety representatives can be held accountable for their actions if they abuse their role.
  • The individual responsibility of employees for the working environment should be increased, to ensure that they follow the Work Environment Act and safety regulations at the workplace.
  • Safety representatives should be appointed by employees in cases where the trade unions have not done so. A reduction in trade unions’ influence over the appointment of safety representatives has also been suggested. Persons who are not members of a trade union should also be able to become safety representatives.
  • Workplace inspections evaluating the work environment and safety should be announced in advance, which is not the case at present.
  • The regulations should be simplified and the requirement for written documentation concerning work environment activities at the workplace should be abandoned in order to facilitate the administration.

Trade union reaction

The trade unions issued a strong response to the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise’s proposals: the presidents of 15 major trade unions wrote a joint article debating the proposals which was published in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter on 22 June 2009. In the article, the trade unions argue that the working environment will not be improved by reducing the power of trade unions or safety representatives, or by increasing the individual employees’ responsibilities for the working environment and safety.

The trade unions are encouraging the employers to meet their responsibilities in order to improve the working environment. The unions highlight the importance of – at the very least – maintaining and improving the country’s working conditions in a time of crisis. In particular, they are calling on the employers to:

  • ensure that they have the necessary number of staff in place for the work planned and that they have sustainable plans for employment;
  • increase their employees’ influence over working environment issues;
  • work systematically on issues related to the working environment;
  • invest in employees and improve their competences;
  • follow the regulations and collective agreements.

The Union of Metalworkers (IF Metall) stated in a press release that the changes proposed by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise will reduce the power of the trade unions and the role of the safety representatives. IF Metall states that violations of safety rules are usually caused by a lack of knowledge. Therefore, the union underlines the need for education and training instead of introducing indemnities. IF Metall believes that the confederation’s proposal could also undermine the existing cooperation between trade unions and employers in the improvement of the working environment. The trade union has called for increased cooperation with the employers on these issues, highlighting the need for such efforts in times of crisis, when the working environment is at risk of being given lower priority.

Karolin Lovén, Oxford Research

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