Labor dispute with Sweden widens

  • 2004-12-01
  • By Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Two Estonian workers were forced to leave Sweden amid pressure from a local trade union, which claimed that the migrant workers were undermining labor agreements and workers' equality criteria. Estonian experts reacted vociferously, claiming the move constituted a possible violation of the free movement of labor in the EU.

JobbXtra, an Estonian company based on Swedish capital that cuts labor deals, mostly between Estonia and the Scandinavian countries, sent two auxiliary workers to the Swedish skiing resort of Gesundaberget in October 2004.

Hotell och Restaurang Facket, the local trade union of hotel and restaurant employees, demanded that the Estonian company sign the collective employment treaty obliging an employer to provide equal conditions, including payment, to all staff.

After JobbXtra refused to do so, HRF asked its members working at the resort to go on strike.

JobbXtra called back the two workers to prevent the strike from proceeding.

"It is particularly absurd that at the same resort, work several Swedish workers from a Swedish human resource company that has no collective treaty with any trade union," said Andrei Kotovich, an Estonian-based headhunter for JobbXtra.

According to Kotovich, HRF was discriminating the Estonian company by demanding the local level of salaries for personnel recruited in the Baltic country.

This is the second high-profile labor case in Sweden within two weeks. Earlier a Latvian construction company ran into legal difficulties when a trade union protested against the use of cheap workers from Latvia. Union officials demanded that the firm, Laval un Partneri, sign a collective agreement.

The Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications said it did not hold a position on any dispute between the Swedish trade unions and foreign companies, according to Asa Gunnarsson, press officer for the minister, Hans Karlsson.

"The opinion of the Swedish government is that Swedish rules on industrial action are compatible with EC law. The Swedish government cannot take a position in a specific case," said Gunnarsson.

The two Estonian workers who were to prepare the resort's skiing tracks for the skiing season returned home on Nov. 21.

"As a result of the 'war' with the trade union we were forced to recall our workers to avoid problems at our client Gesundaberget. Our other projects in Sweden are developing smoothly regardless of the call from HRF to other trade unions to boycott JobbXtra," said Kotovich.

An expert from the Estonian Labor Market Board said the JobbXtra case looked exceptional since the trade union had interfered in a business operation between two companies that did not involve direct employment of Estonian workers by a Swedish employer.

Ella Niia, an HRF official dealing with collective treaties, said that, in her opinion, the trade union was not discriminating against JobbXtra in any way.

"We do not treat JobbXtra differently - we would treat any Swedish company the same," said Niia, citing similar cases that had reached the Swedish Labor Court.

"We want to have an agreement with JobbXtra because this company should compete on the same conditions as Swedish companies," said Niia.

According to her, HRF did not want to accept the hourly salary of 35 Swedish kronor (3.9 euros) that JobbXtra was offering the workers because a Swedish worker would get a minimum of 80 kronor per hour for the same job.

JobbXtra said it is holding talks with the Estonian Embassy in Sweden to solve the problem. The company also intends to take the dispute all the way to the European Court of Justice along with the Latvian construction company, Laval un Partneri. In the latter case, the Latvian Foreign Affairs Ministry reminded the Swedish ambassador to Latvia about the free movement of labor in the EU and asked the Swedish government to solve the problem.

Niclas Thorselius, press secretary of the Swedish Christian Democratic Party, which is currently one of the opposition forces in Sweden's Parliament, said that his party considers it good that the Court of Justice may have to make a judgment on this issue. According to him, the Swedish Christian Democratic Party has no problem with Latvians or other EU citizens coming to Sweden and working there temporarily under their native working agreements.

"On the other hand, we think that if workers from other countries come to Sweden for long-term projects, or if they settle down here and live in Sweden, then they should follow the Swedish workers' agreements," said Thorselius.