Saturday, 4 October 2008

Swedish unions fight exploitation of illegal workers

In collaboration with an immigrants’ organisation, Swedish union confederations TCO and LO have created a centre for undocumented workers. “The criticism has focused on the fact that we did not act earlier”, explains Samuel Engblom, a lawyer with TCO.

Why was the initiative launched?
Over the past two years, the situation of undocumented migrants has received more and more attention. In Sweden, the majority of undocumented migrants are former asylum seekers who have been denied asylum in Sweden but stayed in the country. Most of them work to make a living and many are exploited by unscrupulous employers.
Under Swedish migration law, it is illegal for employers to hire persons who do not have a work permit, and illegal for the same persons to work. The two main trade union confederations (LO and TCO) are critical towards the latter stipulation. We would like the criminal sanctions against undocumented migrants who work to be abolished, while increasing the penalties on employers who take advantage of their situation.
Despite the fact that it is illegal for undocumented migrants to work, in principle Swedish labour law does apply to the relationship between undocumented migrants and their employers. Employers are thus not allowed to violate for example working time legislation or occupational health and safety rules just because the employee happens to be an undocumented migrant. Likewise, if an employer is bound by a collective agreement, he is bound towards all his employees regardless of trade union membership or migration status.

What kind of services do you offer to undocumented workers?
The centre offers information and advice on the Swedish labour market and on the rights of undocumented workers in the labour market. If an undocumented worker wants help in a conflict with an employer, the centre will serve as the bridge between the individual and the relevant trade union, which will then represent the migrant in his dealings with his employer.

What do you hope to achieve? 

The objective is to strengthen the position of undocumented migrants vis-à-vis their employers. Hopefully, the worst abuses will become less severe and less common when employers know that there is a credible threat of trade union involvement.

Do you collaborate with immigrants' organisations? 

Yes, the Swedish Trade Union Centre for Undocumented Migrants is a joint initiative of, on the one hand, the two confederations TCO and LO and a number of their affiliates and, on the other hand, Papperslösa Stockholm, which is an organisation representing undocumented migrants.

What kind of response did you get in the media and from politicians and members? Is the initiative controversial? 

The response from the media and in the political sphere has been overwhelmingly positive. The criticism has rather focused on the fact that we did not act earlier.

Have you had many undocumented workers visit the centre yet?
Yes, the centre has been open the past three Mondays and we have had between three and ten visitors each time. Most of the visitors are former asylum seekers. So far, most of the questions have been of a more general nature. Several visitors are seeking information on the new possibility for asylum seekers who have been denied asylum, but who have a job, to apply for work permits without leaving Sweden and receive residence permits as labour migrants. This is part of a larger reform of labour migration laws, which will take effect in December, if passed by the Swedish parliament in November.

Samuel Engblom contact info. Swedish Trade Union Centre for Undocumented Migrants

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