Negotiations are currently ongoing over how to reform the Employment Protection Act, called Lagen om anställningsskydd in Swedish and usually referred to simply as LAS.
Sweden's Social Democrats committed to reforming the law under the January agreement which won it the backing of the economically liberal Centre Party.
A review into the law, published in June, proposed allowing companies to exempt up to five employees from the 'last in, first out' rule during any round of layoffs, and to exempt companies of fifteen employees or less completely from this rule. While the existing laws protect people who have jobs, some argue they make companies reluctant to give people permanent employment.
This is particularly a problem for foreigners trying to establish themselves in Sweden, who complain that they are routinely let go before the end of their six-month probationary period.
Others are given a series of short contracts, so-called 'korttidsanställning', and then laid-off before they have worked so many days that the company has to give them a permanent job under Swedish law.
Maria: “It's very hard for foreigners to be strategic”
Maria (not her real name), an Italian woman living in Malmö, left academia after she discovered that LAS meant that she was forever bouncing between short-term contracts.
“You have the equivalent of I don't know how many days, and then they'll have to kind of lock you in and hire you permanently, or not,” she explains.
“And in the meantime, what you're given is, say, six months of teaching, and you take it because you're hoping to build up experience, reputation, or whatever. And then, time is ticking.”
“What happened to me in my previous job [at Lund University] was that I ran out of time. They couldn't give me another year [on a short-term contract], and so they were forced to actually hire me permanently. So what they did was that the same day they hired me permanently, they already started the procedures to fire me.
“Formally, I had permanent employment, but actually, they were already making sure that at the end of the period they needed me for I would be let go because of what they call 'lack of work'.”
The main university building at Lund. Photo: Emil Langvad/TT
She then got teaching work at the nearby Malmö University before running into the exact same problem again. And she says many people end up in her position, working up to two years before they must be either let go or offered permanent employment, at workplace after workplace.
“You ended up spending eight years of your life going from one temporary position to the other without ever being being permanently hired, and in the meantime, you do these kind of temporary gigs. You're normally given just teaching. And so it's really hard to find time and resources to write a book, or publish.”
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She said that foreigners in Sweden, who understand the system less well, are much less able to make the move to permanent employment.
“Swedes don't just know the rules, but they play the game as insiders. It's about knowing the right people and being strategic. And I think it's very hard for foreigners to be strategic in a foreign system,” she said.
Despite her left-wing politics, Maria has come to support the proposals to reform LAS that the economically liberal Centre Party demanded in January 2019 in exchange for supporting the Social Democrat-led government.
“Part of me thinks it would be a good thing. If you're permanent, then you're really safe. Nobody will move you. And that's nice, I guess. I will never know,” she explained. “But the real problem is that in academia, you leave an underground of people who are really exposed. There's no middle way. You're either in or you're out. I think the labour laws should catch up with how things are, particularly in academia.”
Sylvia: “Before I moved to Sweden I had never, ever lost a job before”
Sylvia Rence has had two jobs in Sweden, and both times was laid off just before her six-month probationary period was over.
“I didn't speak any Swedish when I moved here so I got the first English-speaking job I could find, two months after landing here, in customer support for a tech startup in Stockholm. They laid me off two weeks before my six months were up, with no warning or cause.
“I thought that was obviously a one-off thing — shady company, shady people, bad luck, what have you. Two weeks later I got another English-speaking job, in Uppsala. Another tech startup but much longer established. The job was in one of my actual fields (marketing). A month after I started, another girl started as well, same department. It was a great job, an awesome place with lovely people all around. I loved it,” she said.
“Two weeks before my six months were up, they laid me off, citing costs and the pandemic. A month later, they also laid off the girl that started after me, also two weeks before her six months were up. One month after we were both gone, they hired someone else.
“The whole thing has been disheartening and I think that for expats, especially non-Swedish speaking expats, we get stuck in a cycle of unemployment and underemployment in part because of this extremely long probationary period.”
Sylvia Rence, from Canada, has found the experience bruising. Photo: Private.
Xavier: “It's literally delaying the advancement of companies”
Xavier (not his real name) was hired by the Stockholm branch of a major accountancy firm, but let go with just one months' notice just before his six month probationary period was up. He believes this was not to do with his performance or business needs, but as a way to avoid giving him the rights that come with permanent employment.
“I clearly saw that they were trying to get rid of me before I got to the six months, because many people came after me, actually. And after six months, it was going to be very difficult for them to get rid of me. I've seen other examples.”
Xavier has since got a permanent job in compliance with one of the biggest Scandinavian banks, but he still thinks that Sweden's strict employment laws act as a barrier to foreigners trying to enter the labour market and should be reformed .
“I think it's a perfect way to go,” he says of the LAS reforms. “Many people I've seen in my area of work, are there just because it's very difficult for the company to get rid of them, so I think it's very good that they change the law so people stay by merit, and not only by seniority.”
“I would say the law is outdated now. It's very good once you're in, but for a lot of people who could provide a way better vision, it's a hindrance for them. It is stopping them from getting into the labour market.”
He said that his field — bank compliance — has faced huge problems in the Nordic region, with scandals at many of the major banks.
“The Nordics require a lot of people to work in compliance, and they will not find this expertise with local people, they are not going to find it with 'Matilda Andersson', they need to find someone from outside. So I would say that the first thing is to get rid of this law, which provides a lot of certainty and security to the employee, but it's literally delaying the advancement of the companies, if they want to be world class, right?”