For members


Why are strikes so rare in Sweden?

Around 1,000 port workers were involved in industrial action this week, when a dockworkers' union organized a strike and employers responded with a lockout. But in general, workers in Sweden strike much less than in almost every other country in the world.

Why are strikes so rare in Sweden?
Dockworkers on strike in Malmö earlier this week. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

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“Sweden has many fewer working days lost due to strikes, lockouts and labour disputes than other Nordic countries, even though we have by far the biggest labour market,” says Per Ewaldsson from the National Mediation Institute, which mediates in labour disputes when they occur.

“Looking further afield, at international statistics, it seems that generally Sweden is among the countries which loses the fewest working days,” Ewaldsson tells The Local.

The Mediation Institute's own statistics show that on average 21,000 working days have been lost per year due to industrial action over the past decade, with a major strike by a healthcare workers' union, among others, in 2008 contributing to 106,801 lost workdays that year alone. The figure for 2017 was only 2,570 lost days. The figure for the past decade is significantly less than the 84,000 days a year not worked in Finland over the past decade, which rose to 128,000 in Norway and was almost 300,000 in Denmark.

In Sweden, only 0.6 days per 1000 workers were not worked in 2017 due to industrial action, according to statistics from the International Labour Organization, which compared to 8.9 in Norway and 45.2 in Spain. And there were six strikes or lockouts in Sweden in 2017, the ILO data shows, compared to 79 in the UK and 426 in Denmark.

If a trade union, employers' organization or individual employer is considering industrial action, they are required to inform not only their counterpart but also the Mediation Institute. This is in contrast to countries like France and Italy, where strikes tend to precede negotiations or occur alongside them, rather than be called as a last resort.

Ewaldsson does not have exact figures for how many of these mediations are unable to resolve the conflict, but according to him “in most cases” a solution is reached before any industrial action takes place.

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A miners' strike in Kiruna in 1969. Photo: Pressens bild/TT

Sweden has a long history of strikes, with the first major one occurring at the Sala silver mine in 1552 when miners refused to work – though these workers were accused of mutiny and imprisoned by the king at the time. Throughout the 20th century, there were multiple strikes including those organized by unions (the Swedish Trade Union Confederation or LO was founded in 1898) and others organized by employees alone.

One milestone came in the form of the 1997 Industrial Agreement (Industriavtalet) between unions and employers' organizations, which was replaced by a new version in 2011. These agreements regulate collective agreements (kollektivavtal); the agreements between employers and unions on issues such as pay levels, working conditions and benefits. 

One of the main effects this has is to regulate wage increases, to ensure that employees continue to get real wage increases but also that Sweden can be competitive in a globalized economy, because wage increases in other sectors won't push up pay so much that companies are forced to cut jobs or even relocate abroad. And the fact is that wages have increased steadily in real terms since the turn of the century, meaning employees may be more likely to be satisfied with their working conditions so that strikes aren't necessary.

“If you look at labour disputes historically, they were much more common in earlier decades than they are now. Back then, it was a very different country with many more social tensions and where income levels were much lower, also in relation to other countries – it was a much poorer country,” explains Ewaldsson.

“One part of the explanation is that the labour market model functions relatively well, not least in the way competitiveness is secured in collective agreements at the same time as real wage increases are secured. There's a basic consensus that this is good for a small exporting country like Sweden. A guideline for our mediators is that they should not propose solutions to conflicts which would exceed the wage increases agreed in industry. That's really the top priority.”

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A rail strike in France brought trains to a standstill last year. Photo: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

The biggest exceptions to the rule are independent trade unions; those which are not part of the LO. This includes the Dockworkers' Union which called this week's strike, as well as the alternative left-wing Central Organization of the Workers of Sweden (Syndikalisterna or SAC).

Other unions, particularly the builders' union and the municipal workers' union, have also held strikes and threatened industrial action on several occasions.

There have also been so-called wildcat strikes, organized by workers without the authorization of their union. One recent example is the Stockholm waste collectors' strike in summer 2017, when dozens of workers walked out over a pay dispute. But that was later ruled as unlawful by Sweden's Labour Court, because it took place during the term of a collective agreement.

This highlights another reason strikes are comparatively rare in Sweden: the strength of the unions. Unions represent around three quarters of workers in Sweden, and strong unions are likely to be able to negotiate reasonable terms with employers' organizations. Again, this stands in contrast to France, which has Europe's highest number of trade unions but the lowest rate of union membership, creating competition between them which may encourage strikes to win the support of frustrated workers.

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While it might be tempting to draw a link between the stereotypes associated with a country and its attitudes to strike: the hot-heated French versus the 'lagom', conflict-averse Swedes, the frequency of strikes comes down to a combination of factors relating to how the labour market is set up, and how the economy of each country works.

This in turn affects how strikes are viewed by fellow workers. In southern Europe, there is often a higher level of sympathy for striking workers seen as standing up for their rights, especially in countries which were hard hit by the recession.

In Sweden, many workers accept that their rights are already protected by kollektivavtal and the strong union movement, and some argue that strikes can be damaging to Sweden's export-reliant economy. This is particularly evident in a dockworkers' strike last year, which risked impacting the movement of goods in and out of the country and even led to the Liberal Party proposing that the right to strike be restricted.

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For members


READER QUESTION: How can I move to Sweden as a self-employed person?

Are you self-employed and thinking about moving to Sweden? Not sure what to do, or what rules apply to you? Here's our guide.

READER QUESTION: How can I move to Sweden as a self-employed person?

The process for moving to Sweden as a self-employed person varies depending on where you come from. Your citizenship will determine whether you apply to the Tax Agency or the Migration Agency, as well as whether you need to apply for a permit (uppehållstillstånd) or whether you have the right of residence under EU law.

Here’s a rundown of the rules for each different group.

Nordic citizens (Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland)

As a Nordic citizen, you don’t need a residence permit (uppehållstillstånd) or right of residence (uppehållsrätt) to live in Sweden. All you need to do is go to the Tax Agency upon arrival in Sweden and register yourself and any family members as resident in Sweden.

You may need to prove that you are planning on living in Sweden for at least a year in order to be registered in the population register and given a personnummer.

EU/EEA citizens

As an EU/EEA citizen, you have the right to work, study or live in Sweden without a residence permit (uppehållstillstånd), and that this includes starting and running your own company.

You do, however, still need to meet certain criteria in order to fulfil the requirements for right of residence under EU rules (uppehållsrätt).

There are different options for fulfilling the right of residence requirement as a self-employed EU/EEA citizen, and both require registering at the Tax Agency rather than the Migration Agency.

The first is as a self-employed person, which means you’ll have to prove that you have a business which either is currently running in Sweden, or is in the planning stages.

You’ll need to provide documents to back this up, which could include things like proof that you have F-tax (the tax status for self-employed people and freelancers), a marketing plan, a registration certificate for your company, and a copy of the lease for any premises you will be using.

You may also need to prove that you have previous experience and skills relevant to your company or the work you’re planning on doing in Sweden, receipts and invoices for any material you’ve purchased, as well as accounting documents showing how much VAT you have paid or are expecting to pay.

You’ll need to take these to the Tax Agency along with your passport and any documents proving your relationship to any family members you’ll be registering at the same time, such as your marriage certificate or registered partnership certificate for your spouse or partner, and a birth certificate for any children.

The second route is as someone “providing or performing services“, which is the route you should use if you’re self-employed abroad but will be providing a service to a recipient in Sweden, such as as a consultant or freelancer, for a limited time.

Under this route, you’ll need to take your passport and any family documents along to the Tax Agency, as well as a certificate describing the service you’ll be providing in Sweden, where you will be working or carrying out the service, and how long for. This needs to be signed by whoever you’ll be carrying out the service for in Sweden.

Note that you can only be registered in the Swedish population register and given a personal number if you can prove that you’ll be in Sweden for more than a year, but you still need to register your stay in Sweden as an EU citizen if you’re planning on being in Sweden for more than three months.

Non-EU or ‘third country’ citizens

If you’re a non-EU/EEA citizen and you want to be self-employed in Sweden you need to apply for a residence permit at the Migration Agency before you come to Sweden, with a few exceptions.

“You can ‘swap’ from studying to work permit and self-employed under certain conditions. And you can swap between work permit to self-employed and self-employed to work permit,” Robert Haecks, press spokesperson at the Migration Agency, told The Local.

So if you’re already in Sweden as an employee or student you don’t need to leave Sweden to apply for a permit to become self-employed.

For students, your permit to be in Sweden as a student must still be valid, and you must have completed at least 30 credits of your studies or a whole term as a research student.

If you’re planning on working in Sweden for less than three months, you do not need a residence permit, but you may need to apply for a visa depending on your citizenship.

Non-EU citizen working in Sweden longer than three months

If you’re planning on working in Sweden for longer than three months, you’ll need to apply for a “residence permit for people who have their own business”, as there is no specific residence permit for self-employed non-EU citizens.

There are quite a few conditions that need to be met in order for the Migration Agency to be satisfied that you can really run a business in Sweden.

First off, you need a valid passport, and it’s a good idea to make sure this has at least a few years of validity left as you can’t get a permit for longer than your passport is valid.

Applicants will need to prove that they have experience in the industry and previous experience of running their own business, as well as relevant knowledge of Swedish or English (if most of their suppliers or customers will be Swedish, the Migration Agency will expect applicants to speak good Swedish).

You’ll need to prove you run the company and have responsibility for it, provide a budget with plausible supporting documentation and show that you have customer contacts or a network which you can use in your business via contracts or similar.

You will also need to provide a slew of financial and legal documents, such as a registration certificate for your company in Sweden, copies of contracts with customers, suppliers and premises, your two most recent financial statements if your company has already been in operation, and a balance sheet for the current financial year up until the month you apply. See a full list of the required documents here.

Finally, you’ll need to prove that you have enough money to provide for yourself and any family members who will be joining you. The Migration Agency states that this corresponds to “the equivalent of SEK 200,000 for you, SEK 100,000 for your accompanying wife/husband and SEK 50,000 for each accompanying child for a permit period of two years”. So, an applicant moving to Sweden with their spouse and two children will need at least 400,000 kronor in savings in order to qualify.

You will also have to pay a fee of 2,000 kronor in most cases.

The Migration Agency will then carry out an analysis of your plans for a business and decide whether it is good enough to grant you a residence permit.

If you get a permit to stay for six months or longer then your spouse and children may also live in Sweden. They can apply for a residence permit at the same time as you, or afterwards.

If you have a permit to be in Sweden as a self-employed person, your family members moving with you also have the right to work (as long as they are aged 16 or older). However you still must show that you can support them.

If you get a residence permit for Sweden as self-employed you will only be allowed to work in your own business.

Talent visa for non-EU citizens

There is another option for highly-qualified applicants who want to move to Sweden to research setting up a new business, which you may also qualify for if you’re interested in moving to Sweden as a self-employed person.

This is the “talent visa”, more specifically referred to as a “resi­dence permit for highly quali­fied persons to look for work or start a busi­ness”.

This permit allows non-EU citizens with a higher-level degree to apply for a visa of between three to nine months, which they can then use to stay in Sweden while they look for work or research setting up a new business.  

You can read more on how to apply for the talent visa here.

By Loukas Christodoulou and Becky Waterton