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Loa Brynjulfsdottir wants to defend the collective agreement model

Loa Brynjulfsdottir is the new general secretary at the Council of Nordic Trade Unions, NFS. Her top priority is to further defend the Nordic collective agreement model. It is under pressure from the more regulations-based way in which labour market issues are dealt with within the EU.

Dec 12, 2011 | Björn Lindahl, Photo: Emil Hamlin

“I don’t understand why the Nordic ministers don’t stand up to defend the collective agreement model more. It is an incredibly flexible way to meet the challenges of globalisation and to strengthen competitiveness,” she says.

Loa Brynjulfsdottir was unanimously elected NFS general secretary on 16 November this year. She is the first woman and the first Icelander to serve in that post. NFS was founded in 1972 and is an umbrella organisation for 16 national trade unions in the Nordic region. The organisation represents more than nine million union members and works to promote union cooperation in the Nordic region, the Baltic Sea region and in Europe.

Her main strength is precisely the relationship between the Nordic region and the EU when it comes to working life. She worked with labour life cooperation within the EEA at Efta’s administration in Brussels, where Norway and Iceland also take part, before working for nearly five years as an EU expert at the NFS. She then went to work for the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees (TCO) before becoming acting general secretary at the NFS this summer.

“Within the EU it is common to have statutory minimum wages and other state directives covering the labour market. But the best agreements are those that are made within one trade by those who are directly affected,” she says.

Not easy to defend collective agreements

It is not easy to defend the collective agreements within the EU, however, especially now when European minimum wages are up for debate as part of the package of new fiscal rules.

“20 out of the 27 countries have introduced statutory minimum wages. Outside of the Nordic region only Germany, Austria, Italy and Cyprus do not have them.

“It can be difficult to explain why we don’t want to have more state or European interference in how we agree on wages. One Rumanian I met told me: ‘Why won’t you just let us have our minimum wage?’. The fact is we are not against other countries having it on a national level if it fits their own model,” she says.

Another problem is the lack of an employer organisation counterpart to the NFS. When you want to talk highly about the three-partite cooperation between trade unions, employers and Nordic governments it is, of course, a little bit strange not to have a Nordic employers’ organisation. 

“We would like such an organisation to exist,” says Loa Brynjulfsdottir.

Despite the fact that the EU will continue to be one of the main decision makers also on the Nordic labour markets, Loa Brynjulfsdottir wants to make the NFS even more Nordic.

“I feel we’ve been loosing the Nordic link in recent years. Questions which we are working with as part of the Baltic Sea cooperation, the EU and globally are also very relevant to the Nordic cooperation.”

But the slightly smaller circle of Nordic countries which are particularly close also have a lot to learn from each other. Loa Brynjulfsdottir is well qualified here too. We meet in Sweden’s parliament during a conference on border obstacles.

Always Nordic

“I have always been very engaged in Nordic issues, politically and with trade unions. I was born in Reykjavik in Iceland but lived in Bergen in Norway for many years when I was a child. I then worked as a Nordjobbare [a summer job scheme for young people who want to work in a different Nordic country] in Tampere in Finland, putting ginger bread cakes in boxes. We sat on old beer crates and were called piipari pakkari, if I remember correctly. Later I was also a Nordjobbare on the Faroe Islands. Then I studies in Uppsala in Sweden while the rest of my family lived in Copenhagen. Later it has been Brussels and Iceland and now the NFS in Stockholm.

“Perhaps you’ve seen the Nordic pamphlet on Jyrki and Jóhanna which illustrates the problems facing a couple moving between the different Nordic countries? They could have made a pamphlet on me: ‘Loa bumming around the Nordic region’,” she jokes.

The movement of labour is the other major issue for the NFS, aside from defending the collective agreement model. The third big question is green jobs. 

“I have experienced many border obstacles myself - but none which have been impossible to solve. But out of all the issues we work with, the border obstacles do create the strongest emotions.”

It becomes very tangible:

“What happens with the Icelandic nursery school teacher who moves to Sweden? People expect this to work and still they face many problems. The fear of things not working out is in itself a border obstacle, because people don’t dare to move.”

The three worst border obstacles

While the Nordic Council of Minsters has made its list of 36 border obstacles, Loa has made her own‘bottom three list of the three areas which she feels represent the worst border obstacles.

“Top of my list, or perhaps I should say bottom of my list, is the problems with unemployment benefits when you move between the Nordic countries. The very strict rules covering unemployment benefit funds create big problems. If you don’t sign up with the employment service as soon as you move to Sweden, for instance, you risk falling outside of the system completely.

“Another problem is the E301 form issued by Norwegian NAV (The Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration), which you need to get unemployment benefits in Sweden. It can take 25 to 30 weeks [to process]. 

“Next to the bottom but one is tax legislation and in third place is the fact that it is impossible to get rehabilitation in a different country from the one a person was working in when he or she was injured at work or fell ill.

“For a Swede who worked in Denmark but commuted from Sweden, having to travel to receive the benefit can become a major strain, when it could all have happened in the person’s home municipality,” says Loa Brynjulfsdottir.

Started green online shop

Loa Brynjulfsdottir shows a more than average commitment also to the third issue awaiting her during her four years as general secretary - green jobs. While on maternal leave in 2008 she set up the online store Ecoloco.

She says the idea came when she wanted to buy a bodysuit for her newborn son. The instructions said to wash it three times before use. This turned out to be because of toxins in cotton clothes.

“After that I only wanted to buy organic clothes. To make one kilo of cotton they use one kilo of chemicals. It felt grotesque. 

“My driving force is and always was to help make the world a better place both for people and for the environment. Ecoloco was one way of helping first and foremost parents of young children to live a little bit greener while contributing to improving working conditions in the dodgy clothing industry.”

Changing the way the NFS works

There have also been changes to how the NFS works, in order to better approach the three major issues which the organisation now is concentrating on.

“Instead of working geographically, we will organise around the issue at hand, because all the issues we work with are wide-ranging,” she says. 

The NFS has four full-time employees. In addition to the new general secretary, the organisation has also employed two new administrators this autumn: Maria Noleryd (Sweden), and Mika Domisch (Finland). The last cog in the wheel is Eva Carp, who is responsible for finances and administration at the NFS secretariat. She also represents the continuity which the organisation needs.

Loa in a nutshell:

Age: 39

Family: Married with three children of 2, 4 and 7.

Career: European Economic and Social Committee. EFTA-secretariat in Brussels. (Own business) TCO. NFS.

Education: Graduated from Uppsala University with a degree in social science and history. Visiting researcher at the University of Namibia. Studies Spanish at the Universidad de la Habana, Cuba. MBA in leadership from the United Business Institute in Brussels.