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INTERVIEW: ‘Spotify need to realise they’re a bigger player and should act like one’

After Sweden's engineers' union took the historic step of seeking a collective bargaining agreement with Spotify, the music streaming service, The Local spoke to union lawyer Heléne Robson about what happens next.

INTERVIEW: 'Spotify need to realise they're a bigger player and should act like one'
Heléne Robson, the chief lawyer at Engineers of Sweden, says that the push for collective bargaining agreements at Spotify and Klarna show that the tech industry is maturing. Photo: Engineers of Sweden

Engineers of Sweden, together with the white-collar unions Unionen and Akavia, submitted the request to Spotify on Wednesday, April 12th, saying that they hoped to strike the first collective agreement with the company “as soon as possible”.

The approach to Spotify came just two weeks after a similar approach to the payments company Klarna, showing how tech workers at Sweden’s biggest tech companies are seeking to unionise in the middle of their first round of layoffs in decades. 

According to Robson, the chief lawyer at Engineers of Sweden, the two companies are expected to enter negotiations within a few weeks of unions making contact. 

“The normal time to get a response and start negotiations is two to three weeks,” she told The Local. “Then how long these negotiations take just depends on the climate of the talks, what is said, how the responses will be. We hope of course that this will end with negotiations and that we will reach a conclusion together.” 

She said that under Sweden’s Co-Determination in the Workplace Act, or Lag om medbestämmande i arbetslivet (MBL), if the companies refuse to start talks, the unions have the right to begin industrial action. 

“At the end of the day, it they say ‘no’ and our members continue to require this, we have to consider industrial action, but we really want to find a way forward through constructive dialogue with the company in order to get to get a collective agreement in place.”

Spotify’s founder Daniel Ek at the end of January announced plans to lay off six percent of Spotify’s global workforce in a memo posted on the company’s website. 

Many of Spotify’s staff members in Sweden have already joined Engineers of Sweden, and Unionen and Akavia also have members at the company. Robson said that since January, a large number of these members had been in touch requesting a collective bargaining agreement. 

“A lot of them have been in touch, so there is a strong movement,” she said, putting the surge in interest in striking a union deal down to greater job insecurity. 

“It’s quite common at workplaces without a collective agreement where the working conditions for the most part are seen as good that the upsides with having a collective agreement become more noticeable when times become more turbulent,” she said. 

“When it’s just down to the employer’s goodwill then it’s less persistent compared to a collective agreement, which stands in place in good times and bad. The members realise it’s getting a bit rougher in the market and also we see in the attitudes from a lot of our younger members that they put safety and job security first.”

She said that the move towards collective agreements at Spotify and Klarna was a sign that the tech industry was moving beyond the startup phase. 

“It’s an industry that’s not as mature as the old industries, like steel for instance, so they’ve had many very good years where the employees maybe haven’t realised what can happen and what gives stability throughout their work life,” she said. “They [Spotify] are moving into a position where they need to realise they’re a bigger player and they need to act like one as well.” 

READ ALSO: Should foreign workers join a union in Sweden? 

In Spotify’s interest? 

Robson said that the unions believed that having a collective agreement in place would help Spotify recruit within Sweden. 

“We hope they will realise that this will make them a more attractive employer and give a more stable environment for their employees,” she said. 

The reforms to Sweden’s Employment Protection Act, or Lagen om anställningsskydd (LAS), which came into force in 2022, she added, meant that tech companies could strike a collective agreement while still retaining some flexibility over which employees to lay off in a downturn. 

“We think that with the new LAS rules in place, where they can make exemptions, and they’re able to make a joint decision with the unions, if they need to cut down staff, it should be easier for them to move forward in case they need to make quick decisions.” 

She said that the unions were aware of the risk that if they made too many demands on Spotify in Sweden, it would simply move more of its operations to less unionised countries such as the UK or US. 

“That’s always a perspective we need to take into consideration,” she said. “But they’re also paving the way for other tech companies because it’s an industry that needs to realise what’s important for their employees now.” 

What would employees gain from such an agreement? 

Robson said that job stability was just one of the advantages Spotify’s employees would gain, citing the greater pension they would have under the occupational pension (tjänstepension) given employees with collective agreements, and access to omställningsstudiestöd, the new system of retraining and skills development support brought in at the start of this year. 

“They would get stability, they would get a tjänstepension, they would have different rules about maternity and paternity leave, they will have access to omställningsstudiestöd,” she said.

“It’s not just up to the employer to change the agreement over time. They need to sign an agreement, and it’s valid for so many years, so it’s much more stable,” she continued. 

“It also enables us to start union clubs at the actual workplace, in Stockholm and Gothenburg, for instance, and to have a local representation with better possibilities for influencing the employer, getting information early, and having good contacts with management.” 

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Sweden raises work permit salary threshold by over a thousand kronor

Statistics Sweden has released fresh median salary figures, effectively pushing up the work permit salary threshold for all new applicants.

Sweden raises work permit salary threshold by over a thousand kronor

On November 1st last year the minimum salary that applicants need to earn in order to be eligible for a Swedish work permit was raised to 80 percent of Sweden’s median salary. At the time the median salary was 34,200 kronor a month, giving a salary threshold of 27,360 kronor.

But in an update on June 18th, the median salary was pushed up to 35,600 kronor. 

This means work permit applicants (including both first-time applications and extensions) applying on this date or later will need to earn a total of 28,480 kronor a month in order to qualify for a work permit.

The median salary is announced in Statistics Sweden’s yearly updates, so it changes every year.

Salaries also need to be in line with industry standards or collective bargaining agreements to qualify for a work permit.

It’s the most recently published median salary at the time of your application (not the time of a decision) that will determine how much you need to earn in order to be eligible for a work permit, so the new figure will not affect work permit applications which are already in process, but it will affect any new applications or renewals submitted on or after June 18th, 2024.

Are there any plans to raise the salary threshold further?

Yes. The government plans to raise the work permit threshold for new permits to 100 percent of the median salary at the time of application, with exemptions for some categories of workers. 

This is currently going through the consultation stage (remiss) of the legislative process, which means it is not yet a firm proposal. If it does go ahead, the proposed starting date is June 1st, 2025.

There would be a one-year grace period for work permit renewals: the current rule (80 percent of the median salary) would continue to apply for any applications for extensions submitted to the Migration Agency by June 1st 2026 at the latest.

Do you have any questions for The Local about Sweden’s work permit salary threshold? Please comment below and we’ll try to help.