Over the last month Sweden’s Prime Minister Göran Persson has become a border policeman, introducing "transitional rules" for East European workers. These dire warnings are directed against an alleged "invasion" of "social tourists" which Persson. But the entrance of ten new member states into the European Union on 10 May is hardly the beginning of mass immigration. The real issue is the ongoing attacks on Swedish workers’ conditions by employment agencies and greedy employers. This must be stopped by a united struggle by Swedish and foreign workers.
Göran Persson and the social democratic government are said to be heavily influenced by a campaign conducted by the Building Workers’ union against "exploited guest workers". This follows an investigation made by the union’s branches in the south of Sweden, in collaboration with the police and immigration and tax authorities. According to this investigation, companies are already hiring foreign labour which is responsible for a turnover worth 1.2 billion SEK (€133m) in the south of Sweden alone. Out of 408 workplaces visited over six months, 140 were said to be partly or fully using "illegal labour". Even if only 383 foreign citizens were said to have been found working as ’self employed’ or ’illegally’, and thereby much below the union wage contracts, this is only the tip of the iceberg, according to the building workers’ union.
Avoiding laws and agreements
"To use, for example, Polish entrepreneurs, as ’self employed’, is just a way to avoid Swedish laws, social insurances and the union’s agreement on wages and conditions", explain the investigators.
That’s right. But, according to the newspaper Arbetaren, union full timers arrived in workplaces where they suspected exploitation was of foreign labour was taking place, "alongside with the police”. The newspaper reports that this led to many guest and black economy workers being arrested. Often those arrested did not even receive the low wages they had been promised. The employers behind their exploitation “have been scared but unharmed”.
Not even those managers that were "outed" in the union campaign’s campaign arrested (the union has produced advertising posters portraying an "exploited guest worker" in underwear, in a parody of ‘H&M’s’ underwear adverts for women, posters which are now to be seen at bus stops, in city centres all over Sweden).
The Persson government is preparing "transitional rules" against "social [benefit] tourism". This is done at the same time as asylum rules are made even more severe against non-Europeans, including abolishing the right to appeal and fines for staff on airplanes and ferries if they refuse to act as ’passport police’.
The transitional rules plan to give time for a “review”, since separate rules for East Europeans are illegal. The aim, of which, is to attack child and housing benefits, support for disabled etc, "for all" newly arrived to Sweden (both foreigners and returning Swedes). Another purpose is certainly to fish in muddy waters for votes in the upcoming European elections through borrowing xenophobic arguments used by both openly racist parties, the new ‘June List’ (a right wing EU-critical party) and by establishment parties, like the Liberals.
"Surprisingly, it is Prime Minister Göran Persson who has centred the debate around the National Democrat’s main issue in the election campaign: immigration of labour. It gives new energy in the National Democratic election campaign”, says the press release of the Nazi National Democratic party.
More remarkable is that the so called ’communist Party’, the KPML(r), is hailing the building workers’ union and applauding Persson’s 180 degree turn on the rights of immigrant workers. This ‘blue and yellow’ (Sweden’s national colours) party have started their own workplace campaign for transitional rules: "With the purpose of putting pressure on the government". Otherwise, they claim, "labour from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, with wages only one eighth of Swedish workers, and with unemployment three times higher, will be free to take jobs in Sweden from 1 May."
According to a KPML(r) leaflet the "import of labour" will risk "throwing Swedish employees conditions decades back". With the exception of one or two formulations, this leaflet could have been produced by the racist parties.
Free import of labour
The purpose of the “free import of labour”, according to the employers’ federation, is revealed by the neo-liberal columnist Peter Wolodarski, in Dagens Nyheter, (16 February 2004): “In the same way as we buy cheap goods produced in Poland, we have to accept that Poles can come here and work for somewhat lower wages than Swedish building workers. That is their competitive advantage.”
Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, (CWI Sweden), is against the capitalist European Union. We stand for socialist internationalism, which, unlike the blue-yellow nationalism of KPML(r), never uses reactionary agitation, and we would never support Göran Persson’s policies, which worsen the rights of all workers.
The alternative to Persson’s policies is a common struggle of Swedish and immigrant workers for common conditions in line with trade union agreements. A general amnesty for all hidden refugees would not only end their misery; in one move the possibility of exploiting immigrants as ”black labour” would also disappear.
That such class solidarity can succeed was shown at the steel plant SSAB, in Luleå, in the north of Sweden. In this case, the building workers’ union raised the wages of bricklayers from Slovakia from 40 to 137 SEK an hour. Given this, it is easy to concur with the statement from the newspaper Arbetaren: “Why not use them on posters all over the country?”
An even more important example is the struggle of Kashmiri and Pakistani stewards to achieve Swedish union agreements on the ship Baltic Star. This struggle, in cooperation with Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (RS – the CWI in Sweden), and at critical moments their union, Seko, led to a victory. The neo-liberals position would be that they should continue with a third of a Swedish wage – and, given their position, the KPML(r)’s line would be deportation. But a socialist class struggle position, advocated by the RS, defended both the immigrant workers and all workers’ conditions.
An alternative to Persson’s rules
The LO (Swedish TUC) demands that the main companies should be responsible for taxes and social insurances of subcontractors; measures should be taken to regulate the employment agency businesses, to make it harder for them to register foreign workers as self employed and therefore have no rights; to increase demands on companies getting contracts in the public sector; to increase the trade union cooperation in defence of union contracts.
More important than these demands is that a real struggle for equal pay and conditions must involve exploited workers, and be directed against the exploiting capitalist companies.
Part of the reason for the decision of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna to contest the EU elections in June is the need to campaign for common class struggle across national borders in defence of attacks on welfare, and to fight for the rights of refugees and the international solidarity of the working class. Such a campaign needs to be carried out in opposition to Persson, the employers’ federation, the neo-liberals, racists, and the bigoted nationalists, of both the right and ‘left’ variety.
This translated article first appeared in ‘Offensiv’ (19 February 2004), the weekly paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (cwi Sweden)