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Sweden: most casual jobs and lowest work protection

Sweden: most casual jobs and lowest work protection

| Text: Fayme Alm, photo: Axel Kronholm

Sweden has the highest unemployment levels among the Nordics, and also more casual jobs and lower employment protection levels for those on temporary contracts. An award-winning dissertation shows the consequences deregulation has had for people without permanent employment.

Sweden stands out both in the Nordics and beyond when it comes to employment protection. The country used to offer the best protection within the EU for people in short-term employment. Now it is near the bottom, says Johan Alfonsson at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Sociology and Work Science. 

“Since the early 1990s, all Swedish governments have supported the deregulations of employment protection and all political parties have presented the same arguments. They have wanted to modernise the labour market and make it more flexible,” he tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

A political shift

Alfonsson analysed the changes to the Swedish labour market in his dissertation “Alienation and work: The conditions among young casual employees in flexible capitalism”.  

“I have noticed a common political shift from the Social Democrats to the centre-right parties where all have been advocating change which benefits growth. As a consequence, they have abandoned the idea of protecting employees from the insecurities of the labour market,” he says.

Alfonsson says there is a trend where individuals to an increasing extent must make themselves available rather than being protected with the help of state regulations. 

Different conditions across the border

Johan Alfonsson compares this to the situation in Norway, which does have lower unemployment but also strong employment protection.

“It is harder for Norwegian employers to hire people on casual contracts. Employment protection is much more regulated there. It is also easier for job-seekers to refuse to accept certain conditions because there are fewer people competing for the same job,” he says.

Consequences of flexibility

In his dissertation, Johan Alfonsson describes what effect deregulation has had on people without a permanent contract in the Swedish labour market, dividing them into three groups:

  • Those on informal, temporary contracts
  • Those on zero-hours contracts
  • Normal employees 

For these so-called casual employees, working life will in many cases appear to be the opposite of the safety people in a permanent job experience, who know where and when they will be working, with whom, for how long and at what pay.

“Casual workers can feel uncertain about the future in many ways. Which workplace will you be at, will you stay in that job, how many hours will you be working and how much will you be paid,” says Alfonsson.

Social uncertainty

Yet the uncertainty does not end here. Zero-hours contract jobs also lead to what he calls social uncertainty.

“For instance when you don’t know when or where you are going to work, or with whom. You cannot plan your time off. As an example, it can be difficult or impossible to plan for when you want to see your family or others.”

The degree of uncertainty varies between the groups. The most uncertain form of employment is found among those who Johan Alfonsson calls nomad employees – those who can be called in to work any day. Or not. You could also be one of 100 people who receive the same text message with a job offer. Whoever answers first gets the job.

Then there are those who have developed an individual relationship with a particular workplace and who are called upon when someone goes on leave or are ill. 

“For this group, the insecurity is less severe,” says Johan Alfonsson.

Research and politics

His dissertation was named the best research paper on labour market and work environments in Sweden in 2020 by FALF – the Swedish Labour Market Research Forum. On of the things FALF said was that “The dissertation will be of huge importance for researchers, decision-makers, the social partners and all others who are involved in improving conditions and reducing insecurity in the labour market.”

Johan Alfonsson is not sure his dissertation will lead to changes in the Swedish labour market, however.

“Labour market research is not meant to change things, but research can be used by politicians in various ways in order to advance arguments.”

He nevertheless notes that labour market research is a loaded topic among political parties since issues like unemployment, employment protection and payroll tax are often central themes in the debate.

"This is true also indirectly since labour market issues are also important for instance in taxation politics," says Johan Alfonsson.

Johan Alfonsson
is a doctor of sociology at the University of Gothenburg. Since 2021, he has been part of a research programme financed by Forte; "Low-paid jobs in the Swedish labour market 2005 – 2020. What are the jobs, where are they and how have they developed?" The project looks at the growth of low-paid jobs in Sweden, who risks ending up doing them and why they have emerged.
Reform of the Swedish employment act

Sweden’s Ministry of Employment has been working with changes to the Labour Protection Act (LAS). The conclusions and proposals have been presented in a new publication (in Swedish only) and parliament will vote on it later this year. 


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