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Ylva Johansson: Minister for Employment with a feminist agenda

Ylva Johansson: Minister for Employment with a feminist agenda

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo/ Aftonbladet / IBL Bildbyrå

Her ambitions are clear: youth unemployment is priority number one. Second on the list is to match jobseekers and jobs. She wants to improve working conditions in female-dominated workplaces and she will fight for more social rights within the EU.

More jobs. It has become a mantra on all levels. The new EU President says it , the Swedish Prime Minister says it as of course does Sweden’s new Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson. What is needed to turn words into action?

“My task is to make sure the labour market works and to improve measures to get more unemployed into work,” says Ylva Johansson.

She will do this through good cooperation. A cooperative spirit and optimism seem to be her tools for realising policies, whether it comes to getting a minority government’s budget voted through parliament, or securing good cooperation with the social partners in working life, municipalities and county councils — and not least with the rest of the government. 

“The government’s work must be aimed at investment and growth in order to create more jobs.”

Necessary investments

Have austerity measures in Europe gone too far?

“Yes. Perhaps not too far, but there has been so much focus on cuts in many European countries that it has become counterproductive.  

“Without investments and growth you cannot turn the tide. But you won’t be able to maintain jobs long term if your economy isn’t in order, and you can’t turn the tide if you don’t invest either, so you must strike a balance.”

Do cuts in Europe influence Sweden?

“Yes, market fluctuations influence Swedish economy, but I would say despite low demand in Europe we enjoy a fairly good demand in our economy. So, yes, we are affected by demand in Europe, but we can’t blame all of Sweden’s problems on this.”

It looks like the German economy is slowing down. What does that mean for Sweden?

“Of course, if the German economy slows down it will have considerable effect on us because Germany is a very important export market and an important trading partner. So there are worrying signs in our near surroundings.”

Ylva Johansson is a fast talker. She is a seasoned politician with a lot of drive, and she is quick to react when something happens. When the Swedish public broadcaster used their flagship documentary programme to highlight working conditions for young people and calling for minimum wage legislation, she doesn’t think that is the way to go. When focus falls on a fatal workplace accident, she writes an opinion piece in the national broadsheet Svenska Dagbladet: We need a new strategy for the working environment policy. It must have a vision for zero fatal accidents in working life. 

When the Nordic Labour Journal meets the Minister for Employment she has been in the job for about a month. But she has not spent much time in her ministerial office: she has been meeting European colleagues at ministerial meetings in Milano and Brussels, attended conferences in Stockholm, celebrated the working environment day and she has set out a travel plan to meet the leadership of Sweden’s 291 municipalities. She wants a dialogue to find out how to work together in order to establish more trainee jobs for young people. 

“This is completely necessary. If you want to get a lot done, you need to work a lot yourself. For me it is important to find parties to cooperate with. If we are to get rid of unemployment I can’t stay in my office. I must get out and work with the municipalities, the employers, the social partners. I must build relations which make it possible to create proper cooperation.”

A feminist government

You are the Minister for Employment in a feminist government.

She responds with a jubilant “YES” and a big smile.

But is it enough to have 50 percent women for a government to call itself feminist?

“No, it is not enough. You also need a feminist agenda. It runs through all the government ministers’ projects.”

She reckons the feminist agenda can be found in the priorities in the government’s proposed budget.

“You see a lot of extra investments which will benefit women, while there are cuts to investments aimed specifically at men. We have for instance set a side a lot to support single parents, most of whom are women. There is major tax relief for the lowest income pensioners. That will mainly benefit women. We are improving the terms of employment for workers in the elderly care sector. That affects mainly women. We are extending the paternal leave quota with one month, which in the long run will impact on women’s wages. There is a range of such proposals in the budget, some dealing with money directly like the child benefit for single parents and the increase in the state pension. 

Fed up with wage differences

“I am fed up with the wage differences in working life,” Ylva Johansson wrote in her blog six months before she became Sweden’s Minister For Employment. Now she can do something about it. What happens then?

“We will map wages in all workplaces. But we will do much more: if you read my blog you would have seen that I have identified four areas which are important if we want to sort out the issue of equal pay for equal work. It is important to map wages because it influences wage discrimination in a workplace. It is also the case that women are more likely to be working part time or on short term contracts, which means they are paid less. So this is also a structural problem. We hope a new majority in Sweden’s municipalities and county councils after the March elections can come to an agreement with the organisations to make full time jobs the norm.

“I’m optimistic,” she says, but admits she cannot be sure until after the election and when a new majority has been secured, allowing the decision to be made. 

Are you an optimist?

“Yes, and right now the situation looks very positive. We will also pass legislation which will limit the opportunity to hire people on a temporary basis. Sweden has been criticised by the EU Commission for failing to follow the directive on temporary work. So clearly this is something we need to address, and it will also influence women’s wages. We have also made changes to parental leave giving both parents three months off each. We will scrap the cash support [for parents to stay at home with pre-school children], which will also have a structural impact on women’s pay.

“It is also the case that women often work in sectors which are less valued than others. We have earmarked three million kroner (€326,000) for measures aimed at making the female-dominated teaching occupation more attractive. We are also increasing funding for health care, care for the elderly and pre-schools. An increase in total resources helps female-dominated trade unions during wage negotiations, even though the government doesn’t interfere directly in negotiations.”

All in all, Ylva Johansson thinks the government is doing quite a lot which will have an impact on wage differences in the time to come.

How long things will take? She is not sure. The budget is for 2015, and then she can only hope everyone will act the way they are supposed to act.

Strong new education drive

“Making the labour market work is the main challenge,” says Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson, and points to the fact that many unemployed people and many unfilled jobs show that the matching of the two is not working very well.

Do you blame the Reinfeldt government?

“Yes I do, actually. They made serious cuts to education. We are turning things around and are investing broadly in education. There will be more study spaces in vocational education, colleges, further adult education and folk high schools [further education without academic degrees]. Long term unemployed can study or take further education with state support. This is something new. 

“We also have the 90 day guarantee for youths which will help them gain the skills needed for the labour market. The aim is for youths to have an offer of education, work or traineeship within 90 days.   

“I am responsible for a big challenge. The youth guarantee is top of my agenda right now. I am planning to meet the leadership for all of Sweden’s 291 municipalities. I want to enter into a dialogue with them about how the state and municipalities can best work together to make sure that all youths, and not least early school leavers, get a new chance. We need new combinations of education and work to give young people the chance to graduate while also making some money.”

How will you involve employers?

“I have started meeting the social partners in order to establish a dialogue about the youths. I am very optimistic about this too, and I believe we can make this cooperation work. What used to be missing was a comprehensive solution for work and education. Now we will find out how to move forward together with the social partners so that we can solve this problem properly,” says the Minister for Employment. 

She believes the generation shift within the municipalities, which will have a particular impact on the care sector, could provide an extra push to help secure an agreement with the municipalities:

“We have initiated measures for youths who have not finished their education. They can spend 75 percent of their time in a traineeship and 25 percent of their time studying to become for instance an assistant nurse, a job for which there is great demand. The state pays for it all — both the education and wages.”

This is a proposal aimed at lowering youth unemployment which is part of the budget, and she believes it will be passed in parliament.

“Finding pretend jobs for young people while we know we will soon need labour in these sectors, that is bad policy.”

Fear of poverty and social dumping

In the government programme you say you want to strengthen the Swedish model. Is Europe a threat to the Swedish model?

“I think we have managed to work up a respect for the Swedish model of wage negotiations. The greatest threat is that inequalities are rising, unemployment is high in many countries and poverty is spreading in EU member states. This leads to social dumping, or in any case it might. When people are suffering poor conditions they are wiling to work for little pay and under poor conditions. So reality is a greater threat than regulations, even though we do face some problems with those was well.

“I want to start a debate with my colleagues in the EU about whether we should introduce a social pact which would see the EU treaty secure workers’ rights and social rights on the same level as the right to freedom of movement. The four freedoms are the pillars in the EU treaty, which is the EU’s constitution. The fact that they are part of the treaty means they have a very strong position. The social rights do not enjoy the same legal status. They could if we had a social protocol. This is something I would like to carry forward together with my colleagues in the EU."

The government also wants everyone who works in Sweden to be covered by the same wage and working condition regulation. How will you achieve this?

“There are two main issues here: in public contracts, which make up one third of all economy, you should demand that employers respect collective agreements. To do this you need a change in legislation in Sweden which the government is preparing right now. The second thing we must do is to make a change to Lex Laval, which regulates the execution of the directive for the posting of workers in Sweden. In my opinion, if we don’t get all the way there, we can strengthen the state of the collective agreement and get considerably further than where we are today.

One minute interview

What book are you currently reading?

Donna Tartt ‘The Goldfinch’ which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. 

When I turned 50 this spring a friend gave me “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. I liked it so much that I wanted to read more of her.

Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?

My co-workers.

As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

I wanted to become a maths teacher, and I did too.

What is your hidden talent?

I am quite a good photographer.

How do you share work at home?

My husband and I share quite equally. When we met we were both government ministers, so we have always worked a lot and had important jobs. It has always been a struggle, but the result has been pretty good.

More about the minister

Ylva Johansson is a member of the Social Democratic Party. 

She is 50 years old, married with three children, trained as a maths teacher and has worked in education and business.

Her main career has been as a politician. 

She has been Minister for Schools and Minister for Welfare and Elderly Healthcare, and she has held key positions in the Swedish parliament as deputy leader for the Social Affairs Committee and lately for the Labour market committee, before becoming Minister for Employment.


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