December 19, 2004

I'm rilly from NZ, eh.

You know the best thing about living in different countries? Nope, neither do I. I find it hard enough to pick out one thought clearly from the welter of likes and dislikes, the culture shock and the 'oh that's just the same as home'.

But one of the things that is interesting is experiencing first-hand the effects of different government policies and current events.

It's one thing to read in the Economist about the number of re-used needles and AIDs cases in India. It's another thing entirely to go to a hospital in Varanasi and see the doctor rush from the seriously injured accident victim in the next room to prod your friend's wound without so much as washing his hands. A much scarier thing.

Coming from New Zealand, it's interesting to speculate about employment law and regulatory policy changes and to wonder how NZ would have been different without them. It's another thing again to live in Sweden. I am constantly surprised by the political and economic power that unions wield here.

We read in class that an average Swede is a member of four or five föreningen (förening basically means means association, the word covers many different types of get-togethers). One of these will be a fackförening. ie. This translates to 'union' in Eithne-land. The fackförening will get a certain amount of your wages, and in return will give you: about a year's paid unemployment benefit at 80% of your salary, negotiated group wages, and benefits.

The other föreningen might be only what I would call clubs. eg. for sports, games, crafts, or they might be like the housing organisation - which negotiates rents and living standards on behalf of the residents.

In a way that seems utterly bizzare to me, from a New Zealand perspective, these föreningen are funded via the government. For example, apparently you get funding from the state for starting a förening, and the state will continue to pay your union dues whilst you are receiving unemployment benefits.

These unions are strong. We were talking the other day in class about job interviews. I asked when it is appropriate here to ask about the moolah. Apparently, if you are interested in such a crass thing, you should nevah ask the employer. What you do is get straight on the blower to your local union and they will tell you what you are worth - in fact, there's a reasonable chance they have already negotiated your wages for you.

Yes, this is good. Sweden is a country with traditionally a high standard of living, a highly educated population, and a history of social democracy. If you must be poor and/or sick and/or disenfranchised, here is probably a pretty good place to do it. I had a lovely example of that. A friend from school here grew up in communist East Germany. One day he held up his sandwich, and said 'here is why capitalism is better than communism'. Apparently growing up he would always have butter and cheese on one piece of bread, with the other piece plain on top to make the sandwich. Here his Swedish girlfriend made it with so that both pieces of bread have a layer of butter and cheese, with salad in the middle. ie. it's better to be poor in a rich country than in a poor country. (Hence, I guess, the saying 'to want your bread buttered on both sides' ).

On the other hand, it doesn't seem like a coincidence to me that I can't find a job here. I think the downside of all this regulation is that things are slow to change. There are much higher costs involved in starting a business etc, and I assume therefore less new employment is likely to be created.

I'm not sure what the real unemployment figures are like here, as they don't count people on government training schemes etc. But here's a crazy fact - "Since 1950, the public sector has accounted for most of the net job creation in Sweden". - Thank you Swedish Government.

Once someone is in employment, well there they are, protected like buggery, with very few incentives to actually do much. I feel that this is part of the reason that I find customer service to be distinctly lacking here. Although yes, I do realise that it's a cultural difference that one does not make small talk at the shop counter...

I won't even get started on the schemes where you can choose to take the unemployment benefit for a year, while another person does your job. It feel like logicality taken to its excess in a way I've never seen before. We don't have enough jobs? Well hell, share them around. It's a truly beautiful piece of social engineering. Dammit, if I could get a job here, I'd never leave it . . .

Ha. I'm really feeling that I am required to start from scratch if I wish to suceed here, in terms of education and work experience. Not happy. And yet, I only have to compare myself briefly with the people around me (there are quite a few refugees on my course), to have a new-found respect for the easiness of my life. Sometimes I despise myself for constantly feeling like it's not enough. The other day I was trying to explain to someone from Poland precisely why I left my job with the NZ government. Part of the problem was that we were speaking in Swedish, and part of the problem was, well WHY would I leave a reasonably well-paid, secure, high-benefit job to bum about the world? Not to mention, do I realise that I am one of a small proportion of the world's population who has the disposable income and the correct passport to do so? (If the present economic and societal trends continue, still no more that 7% (!) of the world population will have access to international travel - World Tourism Org, 2001). If that passport came from Iraq or Peru, I sure as hell wouldn't be sauntering casually through the green line at the airport.

I know I'm lucky. But as always, there's a big difference between knowing you're lucky and feeling lucky.

Disclaimer: I don't speak Swedish (although I can read more than one news article a day now! Yay me!). I don't know anything about Swedish politics. I can only tell the story the way I see it. Am I ranting? I'll stop now.

Posted by eithne at December 19, 2004 01:21 PM | TrackBack