Some increase in freedom and privileges at work, though injustices remain

April 1999 saw the publication of the findings of a survey conducted by Statistics Sweden, commissioned by the LO trade union confederation, asking 4,800 workers about their rights and privileges, if any, at the workplace. The survey indicates that Swedish employees now have more discretion to manage their own work situation than was the case 10 years ago, with the greatest improvements experienced by male workers.

In 1998, Statistics Sweden (Statistiska Centralbyrån, SCB) interviewed a sample of around 4,800 employees - including all types of worker, both trade union members and non-members - on their rights/freedoms and privileges at their workplace, in a survey commissioned by the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Landsorganisationen, LO). A report, which includes comparisons from similar surveys in 1988 and 1993, was presented by LO at the beginning of April 1999 (Röster om facket och jobbet. Friheter och förmåner i arbetet, Rapport 3, Sven Nelander/Viveka Lindgren, LO, March 1999).

According to the authors, the findings of the survey confirm the old truths that working class women have the fewest rights, both in respect of their discretion over working hours and in managing their own work tasks, while male white-collar workers are the most privileged at work. However, there have been some improvements since the previous surveys were carried out. Below, we highlight some of the survey's main findings.

Freedom in working time

The survrey found that seven out of 10 employees with incomes in excess of SEK 25,000 per month can take some time off without a reduction in pay on a daily basis in order to do some personal errands of about one hour. On the other hand, among those who earn SEK 12,000 a month, only three out 10 workers enjoy such rights. Most lose pay for dental appointments or visits to the hairdresser. Only 25% of the members of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union (Hotell- och Restauranganställdas förbund) and the Municipal Workers' Union (Svenska Kommunalarbetareförbundet, Kommunal) do not lose pay for such time off work. Among members of the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Sveriges Akademikers Centralorganisation, SACO) and the Union for Technical and Clerical Employees in Industry (Svenska Industritjänstemannaförbundet, SIF), 70% are allowed to do smaller errands during the working day.

The option of working longer to compensate for coming in late to work is also very restricted for manual workers in LO-affiliated unions, compared with their white-collar counterparts.

Flexitime systems, whereby workers can decide for themselves within certain limits when to start or end a working day, were seen as highly advantageous by almost all respondents but are less prevalent amongst those on lower incomes. The higher the salary of the respondents, the greater the likelihood there is for respondents to take advantage of a system of flexible working hours at their workplace. About eight out of 10 of those earning above SEK 25,000 per month were on flexitime compared with only three out of 10 workers with a salary of less than SEK 12,000 per month.

The scope for choosing the time when holidays can be taken has generally increased over the past 10 years. The percentage of blue-collar workers who are able to choose the time of their holidays increased from 44% in 1988 to 56% in 1998. For white-collar members of the Confederation of Salaried Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) there was an increase from 49% in 1988 to 52% in 1998, and an increase from 53% in 1988 to 60% in 1998 for SACO members.

Overall, the main tendency is that employees' freedom to manage their working time has increased compared with 10 years ago. Improvements have been especially marked in the area of flexible working time systems: these now apply to 29% of LO members compared with 18% in 1988, 57% of TCO members (42%) and 67% of SACO members (59%).

Freedom to manage own work

A freedom to decide the sequence in which different job tasks are carried out is important to many workers. The survey indicates that only about 60% of restaurant workers and municipal and public workers (members of Kommunal, the Union of Service and Communication, SEKO) have such discretion.

In terms of freedom to decide what work to perform in any particular period of an hour or so, the differences between trade union members are substantial. Of SACO members in the private sector, 80% have this kind of discretion, compared with just less than one-third of LO members in the Industrial Union (Industrifacket), the Swedish Metalworkers' Union (Svenska Metallindustriarbetareförbundet, Metall), the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union, the Graphical Workers' Union (Grafiska Fackförbundet), SEKO and Kommunal.

The right to leave their work station for five minutes or so (to go to the lavatory, for example) without asking permission from a superior is such an obvious right for many people that they do not even think about it, the report states. It finds that 81% of LO members, 81% of TCO members and 9% of SACO members can do so. However, this "right" is by no means universal: some 30% of union members in restaurants, in Kommunal and in the Teachers' Union (Lärarförbundet) do not have this possibility.

Telephone calls and visits

Many workers cannot be contacted privately at work or make personal phone calls, the survey found, particularly members of the Painters' Union (Målarförbundet) and Building Maintenance Workers' Union (Fastighetsanställdas förbund, Fastighets). Most of those who cannot receive telephone calls at work are in the low salary groups. Among union members earning more than SEK 25,000 a month, only 3% are unable to make a private phone call. Of the members of Metall and SEKO, 42% are not allowed to receive personal visitors, for instance their own children, in the workplace. Of all LO members, 34% cannot receive personal visitors at work.

Privileges and fringe benefits at work

Survey respondents were also asked about the different kinds of privileges and "fringe benefits"/"perks" they received at work. It was found that of all employees surveyed:

  • about 30% have their lunch subsidised;
  • about 55% have free coffee at the workplace;
  • only 5% have a company car or the opportunity to use one from the company car pool;
  • around 15% participate in a profit-sharing scheme;
  • 55% have access to paid educational leave for at least a week every year;
  • two-thirds are able to use a gym at their work place or obtain subsidies for other forms of exercise; and
  • just over a third receive subsidised medical care.

Over recent years, the availability of subsidised lunches has declined, partly as a result of new tax rules. Free coffee has become much more frequent, perhaps as compensation. Profit-sharing has increased substantially, while the use of company cars has remained largely unchanged.

Young female workers in LO-affiliated unions have the fewest privileges, particularly in relation to medical care and vocational education. Vocational education and training constitutes 2.1% of total working time for LO members, 3.2% for white-collar workers in TCO and 4.6% for SACO members. Male members of SACO undergo staff training for 7% of their total working time, compared with only 1.4% for female LO members


In assessing the survey's findings, it should be borne in mind that it was commissioned by a trade union organisation, LO. However, it was conducted by the the public authority for statistics, Statistics Sweden, and included all types of blue- and white-collar workers. While the results of the interviews on which the survey was based may speak for themselves, it is the conclusions and the perspective over time that may be most interesting. As in all such researrch, many of the survey's results can be interpreted in opposite ways - for example, if the survey states that 40% of workers cannot receive visits at the workplace, an employer might point out that as many as 60% of the workers can do so.

Notwithstanding these reservations, it can be said that the report presents as clear a picture as any of rights, freedoms and privileges at work in Sweden at the end of the 20th century. LO states in the report that it is time to treat people like adults at the workplace. On the other hand, more workers benefit from the various smaller rights and privileges than at any time in the past. Nevertheless, old injustices continue, especially for many working class women (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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