The Nordic version of working poor - emergent segments of service workers in Denmark, Norway and Sweden

Paper af Anna Ilsøe

The development of service economies in the Western world has led to a debate on the quality of new service jobs as many are low-wage jobs with poor working conditions and career opportunities (Westergaard-Nielsen 2008; Gautié & Schmitt 2009; Kalleberg 2011). Empirical and theoretical work has identified new segments of workers in private services at the bottom of the labour market like the ‘emergent service workers’ or the ‘precariat’ in the UK or the ‘working poor’ in the US and Germany (Klein & Rones 1989; Palier & Thelen 2010; Savage et al. 2013; Standing 2011).

Although the incidence of low-wage service work is somewhat lower in the Nordic countries than in the rest of Europe (Bosch & Lehndorff 2005), it is increasingly addressed and debated (Tryggstad et al. 2011; Andersen & Felbo-Kolding 2013; Nergaard 2013; Ilsøe & Felbo-Kolding 2014). Employees find it hard to make a living from their wages and to work the non-standard hours requested, whereas employers find it hard to recruit and retain employees and often hire migrant workers or young students.

This paper addresses and compares the patterns of low-wage service work in the private sector of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Using longitudinal data from the European Labour Force Survey it is examined how low wage service work has developed in the private sector in the three countries since 2000 and which segments that can be identified. Data is drawn from the last quarter of 2000 (before the economic boom), 2007 (before the financial crisis) and 2014 (after the financial crisis). We examine the changes in worker profiles (age, sex, ethnicity, education) to identify new groups of workers and the changes in working conditions (pay, working hours, contract, tenure) to locate trends of erosion. Focus is on workers in retail and hotels/restaurants, as the majority of low-wage service workers in Denmark, Norway and Sweden work in these sectors (Bosch & Lehndorff 2005). We compare developments in the three countries to identify similar and different segments that have emerged over the past 15 years.

Finally, the paper discusses findings in relation to segments of low-wage service workers identified in other Western economies (Klein & Rones 1989; Palier & Thelen 2010; Savage et al. 2013; Standing 2011). Furthermore, it addresses the implications of the emergence a Nordic version of working poor for the regulation of pay and working conditions in Nordic countries, which is characterized by a voluntaristic tradition based on organized labour and collective agreements (Andersen, Dølvik & Ibsen 2014).