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Working life: a non-issue in the Swedish election

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Jobs and social security were important issues during September's parliamentary elections in Sweden. Yet there was no focus on how people view their working environments. "There was an exceptional lack of debates about working life," says Roger Mörtvik, public policy director at the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees.

It's the morning after the elections and Sweden is waking up to a new political reality. The right of centre coalition has won, not surprisingly following the final weeks' polls. What's new is the fact that the Sweden Democrats - described by all but themselves as far-right and anti-immigrant - have secured 20 parliamentary seats. They now hold the balance of power between the two main political blocs. It's a new and unusually fragile parliamentary situation for Sweden, and the main talking point on 20 September. The main election topics of debate - jobs, taxes, sickness benefits and education - are put to one side for the time being.

New jobs to fight social exclusion

Jobs have been the main topic during the past parliament and during the election. The conservative Moderaterna party was rebranded 'the workers' party of today' and oversaw a range of measures aimed at creating new jobs and getting the unemployed back to work. New taxation laws allowed people to write off costs related to cleaning, child care and other home-related work. This was meant to create new jobs in the service sector. Working tax credits were also introduced to make it more attractive to take up jobs. Meanwhile there has been a tightening of rules regulating unemployment and sickness benefits. There is now a cap on sickness benefits. When it is reached, people are transferred from the social insurance system to the job centre and given help to make them available to the labour market. The changes to the sickness benefit system were very controversial. Many public advisory bodies voiced their concerns and media highlighted many cases of people suffering as a result of the new regulations. 

"The message has been 'this is how you could end up if you don't use your ability to work'. You should work hard to find a job and be prepared to move. I wouldn't think they'd carry this disciplinary exercise any further now. That could undermine trust and create an image of inhumanity," says professor Gunnar Aronsson, a working life researcher at Stockholm University's Department of Psychology.

Increased responsibility for the individual

Kenneth Abrahamsson, programme director at the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research, says jobs have been and will remain the main focus for the right of centre coalition - known as Alliansen.

"When we heard about jobs, jobs, jobs during electioneering, it was all about how to reduce social exclusion and how to get people back to the labour market. Yet there has been little debate about the quality of work places or the content of jobs," he says. 

Kenneth Abrahamsson sees a future where the individual will carry more of the responsibility for his or her welfare and development - for better or worse. A society offering both opportunities and risks benefits some groups but harm others. If you successively reduce the tax base you reduce the space for welfare services while the need for them increases - not least in light of demographic developments. Perhaps Sweden is heading towards an American model, although he feels Swedish labour market conditions are still very different to North American ones. 

"The incentive structures we have created allow some to get back to work, while others fall outside for longer periods."

Work's content a non-issue

The day after the election there is worry for working life's future, both among the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees (TCO). Roger Mörtvik is the public policy director at TCO. He feels important issues concerning working environment and the content of work were reduced to non-issues during the last parliament and during the election. Focus remained on labour market issues.

"Work environment and working life issues became non-issues for Alliansen. The Red-Green coalition alternative is a bit better, but not much. There is hardly any debate about how people experience their work situation. If I were to compare this to the crisis in the 1990s, there was a campaign for more jobs and better jobs then. The bad jobs were to be eliminated."

He sees no signs of a re-focusing on working life issues during the next parliament.

"It's short-sighted. Many problems relating to social exclusion depend on your experience in the work place, and policy-makers must give us the right tools to tackle bad conditions in the work place and in the working environment. I fear a repeat of the 1990s when sickness leave sky-rocketed," he says.   

Tough times for the low-paid

Ulla Lindqvist, LO's vice president, is also worried on the day after the election. She has witnessed a range of negative changes during the past parliament and sees no light at the end of the tunnel as a new parliament starts work. Ulla Lindqvist lists some of the things she fears are going to make matters worse. One is proposed changes to LAS - the employment protection legislation. One  suggestion is for employers to no longer have to pay salaries to workers who have been fired as long as there is a conflict over the redundancy. There is also a suggestion to free employers from their duty to allow employees to take further training. This could influence union introductory training. 

Apprenticeships are to run for 18 months, which effectively means an extension of existing trial periods of employment. She also know other parties in the Alliansen, like the Center Party, wish to remove LAS altogether for employers with less than ten employees. 

The other example is A-kassan - Sweden's unemployment insurance fund. At the beginning of the last parliament the membership contribution was increased considerably, and the fund lost more than 400,000 members as a result. The government now wants to introduce an obligatory insurance scheme. The cost would vary according to which trade union you're a member of. That will make matters worse for many low-income workers and for the strength of our union, says Ulla Lindqvist.

"It's now important to mobilise and fight this deterioration and to recruit even more union members. We need to be many to be strong," she says.

Is there a policy stipulating jobs must be created at any price?

"Yes, you could say that. Take the working tax credit, it's a way of pushing wages down in the long term. We risk more job insecurity and lower wages," she says.

Ulla Lindqvist says LO tried to push the issue of working environment during the election but that it was very hard to get the message through to the media. It's an important question - the number of accidents in the work place have increased while the Swedish Work Environment Authority has had its budget reduced over the past four years.

Mobilising for working life research
Both Ulla Lindqvist, Roger Mörtvik, Kenneth Abrahamsson and Gunnar Aronsson want to see more working life research. One of the first actions of the Alliansen during the last parliament was to scrap the National Institute for Working Life. This has led to a deterioration of research on working life, and Kenneth Abrahamsson would love to see cross-party block cooperation to create a more solid base for working life research. Gunnar Aronsson believes in a Nordic virtual institute based on the Nordic model. Roger Mörtvik would like to see comprehensive knowledge and research on working life. 

"With the closure of the Institute for Working Life there's no longer a public body with the mandate to follow up issues of working life and working environments in a comprehensive way. We were world leaders on working life research, now we're bottom. This is extremely sad and there are no political ambitions these days," says Roger Mörtvik.

Gunnar Aronsson, who used to work for the Institute for Working Life, says a lot of knowledge and competence on working environment, sick leave and rehabilitation was lost when the Institute was closed. Sickness leave has fallen over the past six years and it would have been valuable both academically and for practical purposes to understand the process behind those numbers. By the  time of the next elections in 2014, the last of the 1940s generation will be 65 and ready to retire. A lot of people will be replaced, not least high up in the public sector.

"There will be a lot of competition for public services and many of those who will be hired are more individualised and career-minded than today's workers. That can lead to a sharper competition between them and others who regard their job more as part of an ordinary life. There could be an increase in pay and career gaps, yet the political blocks have not yet explained what they will do about this," says Gunnar Aronsson.

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