Sweden’s Unions Need to Wake Up to New Forms of Exploitation

In Sweden, thousands of migrant construction workers have to deal with employer blackmail and attempts to cheat them out of their pay. Unrepresented by the traditional trade unions, they are resorting to more direct forms of class struggle.

Construction workers working in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 5, 2019. (Mikael Sjoberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Work — done! Wage — unpaid! Swindler — we’ll get you, be afraid!” echo the voices of about twenty construction workers, clad in matching yellow safety vests and hard hats. It’s a misty day in February, and they’re blocking the access road to a Stockholm construction site.

The workers, migrants from half-a-dozen mostly post-Soviet countries, shout their slogans in Russian. The scene reveals quite how much the Swedish labor market has changed in recent years. Two of the workers are owed around $30,000 in unpaid wages by an elusive subcontractor active on the site. “It’s not just about the money,” Roman Ramazanov, one of the cheated workers says. “It’s also about putting a stop to this racket.”

Their form of protest, known as an “extractive blockade,” was common in the early days of the Swedish labor movement, halting or hindering work at a given site to force an employer to pay outstanding wages. Since then, it largely fell into disuse, as wage theft and similarly blatant forms of exploitation were eradicated. This was an achievement of the Social Democratic Party, who dominated the country’s politics for most of the twentieth century, and its affiliate, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), which came to unite most Swedish workers.

This blockade is only the latest in a series of about forty like it, organized in recent years by Solidariska byggare (“Builders in Solidarity”), a rapidly growing new union of migrant construction workers. Founded in 2021, it is not part of LO, but belongs to its much smaller, and more unruly, syndicalist counterpart, SAC. Having split from the mainstream labor movement in 1910, at its peak a century ago the syndicalist SAC counted nearly forty thousand members.

But like the horrendous exploitation prevalent in that era — and the radical tactics wielded against it — SAC was marginalized over subsequent decades Sweden developed a consensus-oriented approach to labor relations known as the “Swedish model.” It is this model that is now in doubt — and the recent construction workers’ picket is a small battle in a larger struggle over its future.

The Swedish Model

The Swedish model is built on harmony. Unions and employers come together on a regular, scheduled basis, to negotiate terms deemed beneficial for both. The resulting collective agreements usually cover whole sectors and come with a pledge of peace from the unions for their duration. Strikes are, therefore, relatively rare. With the state largely staying out of this bipartite dialogue, the Swedish model in fact lacks some of the basic regulatory instruments seen elsewhere, such a minimum wage or worksite inspections by state officials. Instead, Sweden’s long-mighty LO-affiliated unions have traditionally ensured employers uphold the wages and conditions stipulated in collective agreements. But this model is now in crisis.

It may not seem like it on the surface. While the activities of Builders in Solidarity have gone largely unnoticed, the ongoing industrial conflict pitting Elon Musk’s Tesla against an impressive show of force by Sweden’s big unions has made headlines internationally. Since the main metalworkers’ union, IF Metall, initiated labor action against the automaker in October, several fellow LO-affiliated unions representing a variety of professions have joined in solidarity, refusing to service the company’s cars and charging stations, or to process shipments of parts and license plates. “This is insane,” a shocked Musk declared on Twitter/X.

A key reason for this rare show of resolve by the LO unions’ leadership is that the conflict is about a basic principle. In an affront to the Swedish model, Tesla is refusing IF Metall the right to collective bargaining on behalf of mechanics at the firm’s service centers. But the resulting clash of the titans is only the tip of the iceberg.

Migrant Workforce

Although Musk makes for an ideal villain, he isn’t the only one busting unions in Sweden. A plethora of smaller businesses are way ahead of him — and have met little resistance so far. They operate a vast shadow economy, stretching across the care, transport, cleaning, food, and construction sectors, where migrant workers are hired and fired on a day’s notice, and the traditional Swedish means of controlling wages and conditions have ceased to apply.

“This significant part of the working class in Sweden today is extremely disempowered,” explains Emil Boss, a veteran SAC organizer and board member of Builders in Solidarity. It’s the result of several parallel trends. On the one hand, years of deregulation in corporate law and the increased use of outsourcing have enabled rogue actors to permeate the market. At the same time, Swedish migration policies have created a multitier workforce, the SAC organizer explains, providing these bosses with a pool of vulnerable workers to exploit.

According to him, several categories of migrants are prone to exploitation. Worst off are undocumented migrants, who can be blackmailed with the threat of deportation. “I’ve encountered cases where employers accumulated a significant wage debt, only to call in the police, have them raid the worksite and deport the workers,” Boss says.

But even those who arrive with work permits are at risk, since their status automatically expires if they get fired during the first two years. “Employers use this to oppress workers and dump conditions,” says Boss. “They can demand cash returns, unpaid work, or sexual services.”

Those seeking refuge also often end up in a similar bind. With anti-immigrant sentiments setting the agenda, and ever-more asylum seekers having their applications denied, obtaining a work permit, with said strings attached, has been a way for many to avoid deportation.

Moreover, even migrants not at risk of deportation — like EU citizens, or indeed Ukrainians (granted temporary residency rights by an EU directive following Russia’s invasion) — often end up facing similar abuse, as employers gladly exploit their unfamiliarity with the Swedish language and system.

“What we have is a perfect combination of economic opportunity, vulnerable victims, and a lack of accountability,” says Daria Bogdanska. Once herself a migrant worker paid below the industry standard, she has since been advocating for migrant workers’ rights, and now works as an investigator of labor market criminality.

What she means by lack of accountability, is that even though Sweden’s army of migrant labor is estimated to number many tens of thousands, it is a demographic the major LO-affiliated unions have largely failed to organize. The reasons are many, from union bureaucracy barring those without social security numbers from joining to migrants’ own apprehensiveness, when coming from countries where union membership isn’t common.

In Bogdanska’s experience, even migrants who do find their way into one of the major unions cannot count on help. Geared toward compromise and consensus, “Swedish unions are often not equipped to handle employers who engage in systematic, sometimes sophisticated criminal schemes, and a reality where migrants work without written contracts, wages are paid in cash, and employers are prepared to forge documents,” she explains. “It’s a matter of attitude, of expecting employers to be well-intentioned, and one of capacity.”


The state leaves it up to unions to ensure that wages are paid and workplaces inspected. Yet those sectors dominated by rogue employers who prioritize hiring migrants to exploit have fallen outside the country’s usual system of labor controls.

“Some might argue that the system still works for the large majority. And that’s mostly true, but the problem is growing. We’re at a point where we must admit that in certain sectors it’s a catastrophe, much worse than in many other countries. It’s the Wild West,” Bogdanska says. “We must ask: Do we want such a large gap between those covered by labor protections and those who need them most but get almost none at all?”

While most workers in Sweden still enjoy some of the world’s best conditions, Boss worries that the horrendous conditions faced by migrants may feed a wider degradation. “It is only a matter of time till the rest of the labor market follows suit and experiences dumping,” he says. According to him, it is a development already evident in Stockholm’s construction industry, where the LO-affiliated construction workers’ union Byggnads is losing its grip over the sector, partly because it has hardly any migrant members. “Wages may not yet have been pushed down, but when it comes to working conditions, it is already clear,” he says.

The gravity of the problem was highlighted in December, when, in Sweden’s deadliest workplace disaster in thirty years, five workers were killed as an elevator crashed at a construction site near Stockholm. Conditions there were emblematic of wider ills. Though the project was being managed by a major contractor that had signed a collective agreement with Byggnads, it was being carried out, via five levels of outsourcing, by over one hundred twenty subcontractors. Of the five workers who died in the crash, one was Swedish, while four were migrants, from Ukraine, Russia, and Afghanistan.

Mainstream unions have been largely AWOL from the fight against the dynamics that enabled this catastrophe. It has instead fallen to the radical syndicalists of SAC to step in and fill the gap. That they can do so successfully is thanks to a quirk in Swedish labor history.

Builders in Solidarity

“There is sort of a safety valve in the Swedish model,” Boss explains. “And to be honest, it was put in place by the Right. Back in the 1970s, the Liberals intervened when the Social Democrats wanted to hand their affiliated unions a monopoly over labor organizing.” As a result, smaller, independent unions like SAC have continued to be able to operate outside the LO structure and its collective agreements.

Meanwhile, many of the perks granted to all unions in Sweden, like the power to legally force employers to negotiate with them, apply to SAC as well. Additionally, when disputes end in litigation, courts will, in lieu of state regulation, often treat collective agreements between established unions and their employer counterparts as a benchmark and rule against employers that significantly deviate from them. “By operating in this gap, SAC has become a laboratory for union organizing,” Boss says.

And if Builders in Solidarity, SAC’s most successful offshoot, have demonstrated anything, it is that the structural flaws of the Swedish model can be corrected, at least in part, by a labor movement that is ready to put up a fight. Since its inception in 2021, the union’s grassroots, militant approach has forced employers to pay out owed wages and compensation to its members, totaling the equivalent of about $2.5 million.

There were plenty of experiences to draw on. In 2019, an organizing effort spearheaded by Bogdanska, among others, achieved victories for Eastern European food processing workers in southern Sweden. At an SAC strategy conference in Malmö later that year, representatives from the British grassroots union United Voices of the World shared their story of migrant workers, especially cleaners, getting organized in Britain. SAC’s Stockholm branch decided to make a concentrated effort to organize “unorganizable” precarious migrant workers.

After a multilingual outreach campaign on social media brought in some initial members, organizers with relevant language skills, like Russian and Spanish, were hired as negotiators. As it quickly turned out that the most responsive demographic were construction workers — some from Latin America, but most from former Soviet countries — Builders in Solidarity was established in 2021, as a union in its own right, under the roof of SAC Stockholm.

With the new union encumbered neither by the naivety nor the illusions of constructive long-term relationships, with which LO unions would approach disputes, rogue employers with little interest in dialogue finally met their match. In many cases, bosses that had been gaslighting their workers for months were so taken aback by the union’s offensive approach, including threats of blockades and litigation, that they paid up quickly, rather than risk the consequences.

Speaking the Same Language

In internal union banter, the success of its tactics has even led to arguments. “You got paid just a few days after we made the first phone call to your boss, and must be the member who’s had his case closed the quickest, isn’t that right?,” negotiator Pelle Sunvisson said to a contently nodding Ukrainian worker at one of the union’s biweekly Russian-language gatherings, a year or so ago. “Bullshit!” a Kyrgyz man exclaimed indignantly. “I hold that record! I got paid within half an hour after we sent a text message to my former boss!” he explained, as the crowd broke out in laughter.

That Builders in Solidarity is dominated by Russian-speakers is partly a result of the EU’s eastern enlargement in 2004. The Polish and Baltic actors that entered the market then have since become middlemen in the recruitment of lower-paid workers originating from beyond the EU’s borders. Russia’s 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine have since led to a further influx of workers from that country.

Coming from post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, these workers’ lingua franca remains Russian, and despite their varied backgrounds and today’s geopolitical conflicts, the union’s internal communication is often amazingly harmonious. In the joint Russian-language Telegram chat, official union announcements are regularly interspersed with members congratulating one another on their respective Orthodox, Catholic, or Muslim holidays.

As word of the union’s success spread among migrant communities, and more decided to join, the syndicalists found solutions where mainstream unions saw only problems. Membership dues are accepted in cash rather than bank transfer alone, newcomers are welcomed regardless of their migration status, and contrary to standard practice, new members can get support with disputes that began before they joined. The union even offers a heavily discounted, symbolic membership rate for those who’ve had to leave Sweden before their disputes were resolved. As a result, it even has a handful of members abroad, some as far away as Kyrgyzstan.


After starting out as a mostly Swedish-run emergency relief effort, “a Red Cross for exploited migrant workers,” as Boss calls it, Builders in Solidarity’s affairs are now also increasingly being taken over by migrant workers themselves. “Members have started organizing one another,” Boss says. Serving on the current board are workers from Latvia, Montenegro, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Nicaragua, and Catalonia, while the union’s administrator, a treasurer, and several of its interpreters are also migrants, who originally joined to get help in workplace disputes. Since its inception, Builders in Solidarity has seen exponential growth, and counts close to a thousand members today. It now makes up about a quarter of SAC’s total membership, reversing a decades-long downward trend in numbers.

Builders in Solidarity’s more radical approach may be a sign of things to come, if Swedish labor wants to build on its historic achievements. In March, SAC’s branch in Malmö, southern Sweden’s largest city, announced the birth of a separate section, analogous to Builders in Solidarity, for migrants working in the region’s agricultural sector. In April, SAC Stockholm established a separate union for cleaners, an industry where especially female migrants often experience exploitation.

Last summer, Builders in Solidarity even took action beyond Sweden’s borders. In response to a wildcat strike by about a hundred truck drivers from post-Soviet countries near the German city of Gräfenhausen, the union launched an “International Strike Fund in Memory of Joe Hill.” Named after the Swedish-born songwriter and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) activist executed in Utah in 1915, the donations-based fund aims to support striking migrant workers across Europe.

Significantly, there are signs that some of Sweden’s LO-affiliated unions are finally getting their act together. Last fall, the construction workers’ union Byggnads carried out its first extractive blockade in thirteen years, against a subcontractor owing wages to migrant members. Earlier this year, Byggnads also established a specialized taskforce to systematically investigate rogue employers.

Looking at the future of the Stockholm construction sector, Boss sees two alternative paths. He says,

Assuming that those most active don’t get burned out before, we either continue to grow, and the construction sector gets divided into one union for migrants and one for the rest. Or Byggnads changes its ways and uses its enormous resources to take over our role, in which case we will probably wither away. While I’m generally not too optimistic, either of these outcomes would be fantastic.

Either way, in the medium term at least Builders in Solidarity is a force to reckon with. This was also clear during the blockade on that foggy day in February. After some initial confusion, Ramazanov and negotiator Pelle Sunvisson were invited into the on-site office for a frank conversation with a representative for the site’s main contractor regarding the wages withheld by one subcontractor. “They are taking this issue very seriously, and promised to look into it speedily,” Sunvisson reported afterward to the picketing workers waiting outside.

Satisfied with having made their demands known, the workers rolled up their banner and got ready to head to the nearest subway station. “By the way, it was very clear that [the contractor] knew who we were,” Sunvisson added with a smile.