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Swedish women in blue-collar jobs lose out
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Swedish women in blue-collar jobs lose out

| Text and photo: Gunhild Wallin

The gender wage gap continues to narrow in Sweden. But take a closer look at the numbers, and you see that not everyone is part of the positive development. Ahead of the 8th of March, LO again warns that women in blue-collar jobs are lagging behind.

“Women in white-collar jobs have seen more progress than others, and much work remains to be done in order to close the wage gap between men and women. The ones lagging behind are mostly women in blue-collar jobs, and single mothers plus women of foreign heritage are getting the worst economic deal,” says Ulrika Vedin, research officer at The Swedish Trade Union Confederation LO.

She is nevertheless happy about the overall statistics that show a narrowing gender wage gap.

“We see that the Nordic model works well, with labour market, family and general welfare policies working in unison. We must not forget that. Even though we do have a pay gap, it is not so bad here as in many other countries,” says Ulrika Vedin.

For the past six years, LO has been presenting “The Swedish Gender Equality Barometer” ahead of the 8th of March. Last year the theme was time, power and money, and the barometer looked back at developments during the past 20 years. This year the investigation delves deeper and focuses on economic equality, based on working and employment conditions. 

Because the report was not yet published at the time of our interview, Ulrika Vedin was careful to not go into too much detail about its contents. There does not seem to have been any major changes in the past year when it comes to working women’s wages lagging behind men’s. 

A growing wage gap

In last year’s equality barometer, LO looked back over the past 20 years to assess how wages, working conditions and family life had developed since the mid-1990s. One result stood out – economic inequality has grown in Sweden. Women in both blue-collar and white-collar jobs have narrowed the pay gap between them and men, but the female white-collar workers have also pulled away from the female blue-collar workers when it comes to pay. This is due to an increasing pay gap between blue-collar and white-collar workers.     

Yet Ulrika Vedin does not agree that this means that trade unions for white-collar workers do a better job at representing their members. The labour market has develop in a direction that benefits higher skilled workers, and jobs growth is taking place within occupations that need university-level education.

“Women in blue-collar jobs never benefit from the market, and their jobs are not as highly valued as those of white-collar workers higher up on the ladder. Class does come into it when occupations are valued, so there is no coincidence that the pay gap is widening. In care and service occupations, the labour force represents part of the production cost, so there is naturally an interest in keeping wages low,” says Ulrika Vedin.

When LO calculates the pay gap, they start by finding out the real monthly pay. This means the actual hours worked are taken into the equation, since many women work part-time – often against their wishes. Calculating the real monthly pay, LO takes the full-time monthly salary with no bonuses, and divide it with the actual number of hours worked. The real average monthly salary for blue-collar women was 20 960 kronor (€1,990) in 2016. The average monthly pay for a full-time job was 26 200 kronor (€2,490).

“We want to show how much the work actually pays. When you are of working age, your take-home pay is the most important thing for your independence and living conditions, so we want to show how part-time work influences people’s economies,” says Ulrika Vedin. 

Complex links

She says it is important to think two thoughts simultaneously, when thinking about, talking about and creating strategies for gender equality. A living wage is a prerequisite for being able to maintain the freedom to choose the life you want for yourself and your children. It means having the right to full-time work and secure terms of employment. A living wage is important also beyond your working years – it affects your pension and therefore your old age. 

But for women in blue-collar jobs, things are mainly going the wrong way. Over the past 20 years the number of precarious contracts – and not least so-called zero hours contracts – have increased more for women in blue-collar jobs than for other groups of workers in society. Many women in blue-collar jobs work part-time out of no choice of their own, which impacts on pay, unpaid domestic work and their influence over their own work. 

There is a faint silver lining – the agreement between the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL), and the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union (Kommunal) known as “the full-time journey”. This is aimed at getting more people in the care sector into full-time employment.

“This is an important part,” says Ulrika Vedin.

She also wants to highlight other measures that are necessary for improving the conditions for women in blue-collar jobs. Family policies need an overhaul, and the LO annual congress also agreed to recommend an individualisation of parental leave – i.e. it should be divided equally between men and women.

Child care is another important issue. Today this is available in the daytime, which helps white-collar workers who for the most part work during the day. It is harder to make use of the services for women in blue-collar occupations who work evenings and weekends.

“And we know that women take the main responsibility for the children whether they are blue or white-collar workers. That is the way it is around the world.

Retraining is also important, she points out. LO’s female-dominated occupations should not become a dumping ground when retraining in other sectors fail. 

“This is very important for LO’s female-dominated jobs, because you risk ending up with parts of the workforce being sluiced into these occupations, putting pressure on flexibility and lower minimum wages.”

Gender equality and equality belong together

When reflecting over what the growing pay gap means, she likes to look at the correlation between wages and working conditions and the division of care and household work.  Equality and gender equality belong together. If you have no equality in society, gender equality tends to suffer as well. Those who make less money, have a worse starting point when it comes to negotiations at home about who should be doing what. 

“Economic resources flowing from work are crucial for achieving gender equality, but I feel the conditions for women in blue-collar jobs are being forgotten, despite the fact that gender equality is an aim for society as a whole.”

Ulrika Vedin talks about trade union feminism, the need to see and recognise the structures that influence gender equality rather than turning gender equality into an stand-alone issue.

“This is about classic trade union issues, the basic structures for work and family. As an individual you are too weak to influence structures, so you need the help of the collective,” she says.

Filed under:
Ulrika Vedin

is research officer at The Swedish Trade Union Confederation LO (picture above).

Facts

In 2017, women's average monthly pay was 31 700 kronor (€3,015) while men made 35 700 kronor (€3,395) – a pay gap of 11.3 %. That is 0.7 percentage points less than in 2016.

There is great variation between different sectors. The greatest pay gap is found in the county councils (20.6 %), the smallest within municipalities (3.1 %).

It is common to apply a so-called standard weighing in wage statistics. This allows you to take into account differences that occur because men and women are represented differently across occupations, sectors, educations, ages and working hours. This gives you a wage difference between men and women of 4.3 %. 

(Source: The Swedish National Mediation Office)

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