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What solidarity? Minimum wages split Nordic and EU unions

What solidarity? Minimum wages split Nordic and EU unions

| Text: Bengt Rolfer and Gunhild Wallin, photo: Sara Galbiati

The disagreement over the EU’s proposed directive on statutory minimum wages throws the issue of solidarity into focus. But it also highlights the alienation and poor pay and conditions found across many sectors in Europe.

“It’s a jungle out there,” said Jack Campbell in the GigWatch podcast in late December 2020. He works as a bike courier for Wolt in Copenhagen, one of many platform companies connecting restaurants selling food to private individuals at home. Jack Campbell also studies the gig economy’s effect on the labour market, at the University of Copenhagen. He is working to sign up more couriers in the trade union Wolt Workers’ Group.

When he gets a “gig” he can make 120 Danish kroner an hour, but with no gigs he makes nothing. And gigs are not easy to come by. They are announced a few times a week, and you have to be lightning-fast to secure one. In 30 seconds they have all been taken, and it is difficult to secure more than two to three gigs a week. 

If you need any sort of economic stability, you must be constantly available. You check your mobile all the time, and Jack Campbell talks about colleagues who work 70 to 80 hour weeks in order to make enough money to live. Many of them originally came from African countries.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell is trying to organise Wolt workers in Copenhagen.

Fighting for a collective agreement

The many bicycle couriers now found in most larger cities are part of the so-called platform or gig economy. Many bicycle couriers have precarious employment contracts or find themselves in an in-between state of being employed and being self-employed. Wolt Workers’ Group pushes the issue of a collective agreement in cooperation with the 3F trade union, recently via their Facebook site:

“Happy new year! Many of you will be ordering food through Wolt today while nursing your hangovers. While you do that, why not help us in our fight to get them to sign a collective agreement with 3F. Here is a suggested text: ‘Hi, I am unhappy with the conditions you offer your couriers. That’s why I think you should enter into an agreement with 3F. So that all Wolt workers get the same rights as all of us here in Denmark.’ This is perhaps the easiest way for you to show your support for the labour movement today.”

Wolt Worker’s Group puts forward classic union demands. They want employment, they want a fair and predictable salary and they want security if they get injured. Wolt has insurance for their couriers, but this has been criticised for being too narrow and for only covering serious injury.

Unclear employment conditions

Many working in the gig economy have so far been falling between two stools when it comes to security and pay. Many are self-employed, which means they are not part of a traditional employer-employee relationship.

Bicycle couriers are also far from alone in working long days and facing precarious working conditions. Low and changing minimum wages are but one problem for many of Europe’s workers, both in their home countries but also as a result of the free movement of people.

The Swedish National Audit Office recently looked into the exploitation of workers in Sweden and concluded that it is a large and growing social problem, “mainly because the government has not given the authorities a mandate and clear guidelines to fight the problem”. It is for the most part foreign people who are paid unreasonably low wages, suffer long working hours, a dangerous work environment and poor living conditions.

Few cases go to court

The National Audit Office confirms that existing regulations do not protect people from being exploited. It is for instance not illegal for an employer to receive money for employing someone, or to demand someone they have employed to pay their wages back. It also emerged that controls carried out by the authorities rarely lead to anything. Despite a sharpening of the legislation in 2018, no more employers have been punished for forced labour or exploitation.

“Few cases go to court and the risk of being convicted is nearly non-existent,” says Yvonne Thorsén, who led the National Audit Office’s investigation.

The report makes a range of recommendations aimed at fighting exploitation, including increased control and improved opportunities for those at risk of not getting properly paid. A statutory minimum wage is not one of the recommendations, however. The report does show that the individual workers must take on a lot of responsibility to fight for their rights if they are not trade union members. Many unions struggle to recruit foreign workers.

Meanwhile, a report from the Swedish National Mediation Office shows extremely low wages represent a very small problem in Sweden. Fewer than 1% of employees are paid less than 60% of the national median wage, or 17,700 Swedish kronor (€1,747) a month (2018 figures). This measurement is the one most used when talking about minimum wage levels. Most of these workers are young people under 20. 

According to official wage statistics, 90% of Swedish employees are covered by collective agreements. Hardly any of the agreements contain a set wage level, however. The pay is usually set individually when someone is hired. This also means that even in workplaces that are covered by a collective agreement, there is no lowest level of pay that the employer needs to adhere to, points out the National Mediation Office in its report.

The statistics from the National Mediation Office do not cover the so-called shadow labour market, however, and it is difficult to measure how many work there and how much – or little – they earn. Estimates talk about “tens of thousands” of people.

Focus on new, precarious sectors

Before the pandemic broke out last year, Swedish LO had just launched a drive to recruit members and negotiate collective agreements in the emerging sectors where an increasing number of people work without secure employment and for low pay. Therese Guovelin, LO’s Vice President, says every person who does not enjoy decent working conditions is a sign of a failing society. 

But would it not be better for them if there was a statutory minimum wage so that the employer could be sued?

“We have been fighting workplace crime and bad employers for a long time. We are pushing the politicians on this all the time. These employers would not stop exploiting people if we got statutory minim wages. We already have the possibility of taking them to court. What we do need, however, is to make sure this part of the labour market is also covered by collective agreements, and in this, we agree with the serious employers,” she says.

What is solidarity?

The categoric opposition to the EU’s proposed statutory minimum wage directive from the majority of the Nordic countries (Finland being the exception) has been met with anger and wonderment among trade union colleagues elsewhere in Europe, but also among EU politicians. Do the Nordic countries with their strong trade unions not want to show solidarity with countries that need secure minimum wages for the very poorest? 

Several representatives we have spoken to in the Nordic countries say they absolutely do want to show solidarity. 

Lena Maier Söderberg

But this should happen through projects that strengthen trade union membership numbers, not with the EU introducing a statutory minimum wage and thereby interfering in what traditionally has been regulated through agreements between the social partners in the Nordics. 

And few believe statutory minimum wages would really improve things, so this is not really about solidarity. 

“It is a big problem that so many are in precarious jobs on wages they cannot live on, but would a statutory minimum wage solve this? We don’t believe so. 

This is really not less of a problem in countries that already have a statutory minimum wage. The solution is to work against these forms of employment through a combination of collective agreements and legislation,” says Lena Maier Söderberg at Saco (Photo: Knut Capra Pedersen)

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Want a collective agreement

Pouyan Vali, Laura Dickinson and Jack Campbell (above) all work as bicycle couriers for Wolt in Copenhagen. Together with the Danish trade union 3F they are pushing for a collective agreement.


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