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Sweden’s transport sector considers universally applicable collective agreements

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt

The Swedish model is no longer strong enough. The transport sector is so troubled by unfair competition that we must consider introducing universally applicable collective agreements.

So say the heads of the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union and the employers’ organisations the Transport Group and the Swedish Road Transport Employers’ Association, who are planning a joint trip to Norway and Finland to study their systems of universal applicability. But other trade unions and employers’ organisations are resisting. In Sweden and Denmark, collective agreements are only binding for employers who join them voluntarily. The other Nordic countries, as well as most EU/EEA countries, have so-called universally applicable collective agreements. This means that all employers within the scope of the agreement are obliged to pay wages and fulfil any other terms as defined in the collective agreement, whether they want to or not.

For a long time there has been nearly deafening agreement between the social partners in Sweden that the country should not go down that road. It would be alien to the Swedish model. During 2013, however, cracks have begun to show in that consensus.

At a seminar during the so-called politics week in Sweden’s Almedalen last summer, the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union’s leader Lars Lindgren noted that the collective agreement’s position was becoming so weakened that you would have to start thinking about introducing universally applicable collective agreements in Sweden. It is not surprising that he of all people was the first to bring this issue to light. The transport sector has been the worst hit of all industries by unhealthy competition. Trade unions and employers’ organisations agree on what is happening, and they highlight two core challenges.

Against cabotage rules

One is the fact that foreign transport companies are permanently running domestic routes within Sweden with drivers who are paid in accordance with the rules in the country where the transport company is registered, although this is in breach of the so-called cabotage rules. These rules allow foreign companies to run domestic routes to a certain extent so that they don’t have to return home with empty trucks, but they don’t allow for this to carry on permanently. 

Cheating with cabotage rules can not be dealt with by making the collective agreement universally applicable, however. What is needed here is more effective sanctions and for the police to take breaches of these rules seriously and to act, say trade unions and employers.

The other challenge is found within the taxi trade. For a taxi company it is a real coup to secure contracts with a municipality or a county council to run publicly funded transport of citizens who are ill or physically handicapped. But since these contracts are only awarded to the lowest bidder it is no longer possible to secure the contract if you pay your drivers according to the collective agreement. Which in turn means fewer and fewer taxi firms want to join the collective agreement. This is the problem universally applicable collective agreements could help solve.

Great resistance

During the Almedalen seminar Lars Lindgren got some support from the leaders of the Swedish Union for Service and Communications Employees (SEKO) and IF Metall, who agreed universally applicable collective agreements could represent a solution for some unions. As the debate progressed throughout the autumn, however, it became clear that there is still great resistance among trade unions and employers. Other trade unions have far fewer problems defending the collective agreement’s position than the transport union, and there is fear trade union membership will fall if collective agreements become universally applicable.

Yet the parties within the transport sector stick to their guns. In the new year the leaders for the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, the Transport Group and the Swedish Road Transport Employers’ Association will travel to Norway and Finland to see how things work there. The Norwegian and Finnish systems are very different from each other. In Norway universal applicability is only used when a trade is especially exposed to what is called social dumping, and in that case there are only certain parts of the collective agreement – usually those concerning wages and working hours – which are made universally applicable. In Finland, however, all national collective agreements with a certain degree of coverage are made universally applicable, and in reality nearly all of the labour market is covered by such agreements. 


The debate over how things should look in Sweden is set to continue.


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