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EU Commission critical to Swedish laws

| 26.04.2010 | Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt

Sweden could be forced to change its rules on temporary employment after pressure from the European Commission. It has voiced doubts over whether Swedish laws comply with EU's fixed-term work directive (1999:70).

The Commission also criticizes a law allowing employers told by the Swedish Labour Inspectorate to change the way they operate to get away scot free. Companies simply have to reorganise and emerge as a new employer. Both matters have come to light after Swedish trade unions complained to the Commission.

In 2007 new rules on temporary employment were introduced to Sweden's employee protection law. It allows employers to hire as many people as they want on so-called general fixed-term contracts for up to two years. Employers are not obliged to justify the fixed-term nature of the contracts. Employers are also allowed to use fixed-term contracts for temporary workers, seasonal work and for probationary periods of up to six months before a worker gets a permanent job.

Workers aged 67 years or more can always be employed on a fixed-term contract.

The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, TCO, reported Sweden to the European Commission arguing the new rules were in breach of EU's fixed-term work directive. The directive states that permanent contracts should be the rule and says all member states must introduce rules to stop repeated abuse of temporary contracts. Today's Swedish rules offer no such impediment - it is possible to employ the same person on various temporary contracts for as long as the employer chooses, argues the TCO.

The Commission started asking the Swedish government questions, but the government replied the complaints were unjustified. It pointed out that a worker who has been on a fixed-term general contract with the same employer for more than two years will automatically be given a permanent contract. 

But the Commission argues there must be firm rules for how long someone can be on temporary contracts without becoming permanent staff, and in March it launched a so-called infringement procedure - the first formal step in a procedure which could ultimately see Sweden being taken to the EU court. The government does have one more chance to convince the Commission that the law does not need changing.

Another case, brought by the main service and communication union, SEKO, has seen the procedure go one step further. The Swedish Work Environment Authority had ordered the company running Stockholm's underground trains to take measures to protect their drivers from violence. Before the order could be effectuated, the company merged with its owner company and therefore ceased to exist. As a result the order from the Work Environment Authority also ceased to apply, even though the same company with the same employees and the same work environment problem carried on as before. It took the Work Environment Authority two and a half years to issue a new order to the new employer.

The Commission says this amounts to a fault in the system which delays measures which are necessary to safeguard the health and safety of employees. Therefore the Commission has demanded that Sweden changes its rules to make Swedish law in tune with the EU's Framework Directive on occupational safety and health.

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