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The minimum wage — threat or opportunity?

| By Berit Kvam

Stop worrying and join the debate about a legally binding minimum wage across the EU. That’s the bombshell from Bente Sorgenfrey, the new President for the Council of Nordic Trade Unions, NFS. Is fear for the debate the real problem, or is a statutory minimum wage a real threat to the Nordic model? The Nordic Labour Journal kicks off the debate in this month’s theme.

"It’s modern slavery what's happening on the roads,” says truck driver Freddy Welle in Sweden. He wants to fight for a minimum wage and a level playing field to stop social dumping and the exploitation of drivers, which is rife in his trade today. Yet Transport is the only trade union in Sweden which wants a minimum wage. The rest of the movement, led by the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions, is opposed because it sees a minimum wage as a threat to the present collective agreement model. “We have to face the music” says Sorgenfrey. She believes the debate is important in order to make everybody aware of the strengths of the Nordic collective agreement system.

In Europe the debate is intensifying and could be on the agenda during the European Trade Union Confederation’s autumn congress. There are many arguments; many EU countries have introduced a statutory minimum wage this year, including Germany, where three to four million workers have got a pay rise as a result. But how far can Europe go when the minimum wage varies from €1.04 in Bulgaria to Luxembourg’s €11.10? What are the consequences for the Nordic countries, where even the lowest wages reached through collective agreements are higher than that? And can a minimum wage threaten trade union membership figures? The alternative could be to combine collective negotiations and a minimum wage.

Several models might be considered. Many Nordic countries look to Norway where universally applicable collective agreements have become a key tool to secure minimum wages. The model builds on collective negotiations which determine a pay standard within a trade. The system is now so popular that it is spreading to more trades all the time.

Yet opinions are divided. MEP Ulla Tørnes from Denmark’s Liberal Party supports neither the Norwegian model nor a statutory minimum wage. “We are better served with the Nordic agreement model where the social partners negotiate wages and working conditions with no political interference,” she says.

Afraid of the debate? Bente Sorgenfrey has brought it to the Nordic table. She believes Nordic trade unions cannot hide from what is happening in the rest of Europe.

Sweden’s Transport union believes a statutory minimum wage is an alternative protection against social dumping and appalling working conditions. Start talking about it, says the leader of the Council of Nordic Trade Unions. Will the trade union movement join in the debate?

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