Mixed reaction from social partners to new employment minister

The appointment of a new employment minister in Sweden has been greeted with approval by representatives of some of the country’s trade unions, as Hillevi Engström has a history of being closer to the union movement than is common for her conservative Moderate Party. Ms Engström was formerly a trade union representative when she worked in the police. Other social partners are reserving judgment on the new minister and it remains to be seen if her appointment will lead to a policy shift.

New government’s agenda

On 6 October 2010, newly-elected Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt presented his new government and its agenda for the coming four years of office. Most of it had been known since the election campaign, and the Prime Minister spoke optimistically about the trend towards lower unemployment and improved state finances. Employment was the key issue in the election campaign and is also an important part of the new agenda – the government will aim to achieve full employment during its term. A number of measures to achieve this aim have been presented, including apprenticeships and reduced payroll taxes for hiring young people, to reduce high youth unemployment in the country.

The new government also features some new faces, although it is made up of the same parties as the previous government. The minister responsible for labour market issues is Hillevi Engström, who has represented the centre-right Moderate Party in the Swedish parliament since 2002, and been chair of the parliamentary labour market committee since 2008. Previously she worked as a detective inspector in the police and was at the time a trade union representative (she was the first female trade union ombudsman within the police).

The new employment minister has already made a few statements indicating the future direction of Swedish labour market policies. She has said there will be no major changes from the policies of her predecessor Tobias BIllström, also from the Moderate Party, and that the Employment Protection Act (Lag om anställningsskydd, LAS) is in no need of reform. The law has, however, been a bone of contention between employer organisations and trade unions for quite a while.

Gender quotas in public limited companies do not seem to be of immediate interest to the Minister Engström and she has also said she will wait for the results of an ongoing investigation into unemployment insurance before drawing up a new policy, which is likely to make unemployment insurance mandatory. Despite these diplomatic statements, she is seen as a fairly union-friendly politician who does not wish to reform regulations that have often been criticised by employer organisations.

Reactions from social partners

Trade unions are generally positive about the new employment minister. The President of the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees (TCO), Sture Nordh, said the new minister’s trade union background is to her advantage in the new job. The President of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union (Byggnads), Hans Tilly, also believes that Hillevi Engström’s union background will facilitate dialogue. The Union of Metalworkers (IF Metall) and its President Stefan Löfven said they will wait to see results, particularly in the area of active labour market policies, before giving their judgment on the new minister.

On the other hand, business newspapers were content to note that the new minister had expressed positive opinions about the role of temporary work agencies, one of the most debated issues in the last bargaining round and a cause of much protest on the part of trade unions, which see them as a way to bypass the Employment Protection Act.

Employer organisations have not yet given their opinions on the new labour market minister, but they did offer some comments on the new government’s agenda. The Federation of Private Enterprises (Företagarna) – not an employer organisation as such but an enterprise lobby organisation – said the agenda puts a welcome and increased focus on business development and the conditions for the growth of enterprises.

The Commercial Employees’ Union (Handels) and its President Lars-Anders Häggström have been more critical, fearing the new government’s agenda will lead to growing social injustice.

Commentary

It is too early to say if the appointment of a new minister in charge of the labour market will cause a shift in policies compared to those of the previous government. Most likely, any shift will be in rhetoric rather than reflected in actual policies, as the main features of labour market policies were set a long time ago, being the cornerstone of the coalition government.

Mats Kullander, Oxford Research

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