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Working conditions


For many businesses, employees are the greatest asset they have. Providing favourable working conditions and working relationships can make your company more attractive, strengthen your brand and reinforce your competitive strength. Over and above the positive impact the company may enjoy through offering attractive working conditions, financial and criminal penalties may be imposed if a certain basic condition are not met.

Sweden has rigorous legislation that requires companies to ensure that the workplace is safe, offers a good working environment and that it is free from discrimination, bullying or harassment. For companies operating outside of Sweden’s borders it is important to comply with laws of other countries. Unfortunately, compliance with rules and regulations are not as well developed in all countries. Regardless of where in the world your company operates, and regardless of possible inadequacies of national legislation, the company still has an obligation to live up to the minimum standards stipulated in International Conventions and Working Conditions Guidelines – please see the ILO Fundamental Conventions (International Labour Organization, the UN body for employment and employment issues).

In addition to taking responsibility for their own operations, Swedish companies should put pressure on the entire value chain to ensure international conventions and guidelines are met, particularly in delivery processes. If short­comings, such as child labour or forced labour were to be discovered in the company’s value chain, it could have major financial consequences for your business and could alos cause significant damage to your brand image.

Below, we highlight some of the greatest risks related to working conditions, to which your company should pay attention both in its own business and through the value chain. The challenges listed here may be encountered in operations in Sweden, however you should pay particular attention to risks  in the value chain abroad. The risks listed below are governed by various international conventions and guidelines. Please note that the list is not exhaustive.



Safety and the working environment

Many industries suffer from inadequate work environments and incidences where safety is jeopardised. This goes for Sweden as well as other countries. Companies have an obligation to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for employees. This is especially important in workplaces where there are high risks of occupational injuries, for example in factories, on construction sites, in transportation and in premises housing chemicals and explosives.

According to ILO statistics, 6,300 people die every day due to occupational accidents and occupation-related diseases. Inadequate work environments and safety hazards include lack of protective equipment, lack of ventilation, inadequate sanitation or workplaces that are located in dangerous areas and vulnerable areas, which may pose risks in terms of transport to and from work. More information on working conditions can be found at the ILO Safety and Health at Work page.

In many industries, especially in manufacturing and the service sector, employees work long shifts, which can lead to a greater risk of injuries and accidents occurring. Unfortunately, in some countries, this is more the rule than the exception. However, companies are obliged to offer their employees decent working hours. Overtime should only be agreed to in exceptional cases and in accordance with applicable rules. More information about working hours can be found on the ILO Working hours page.


Discrimination and harassment

Companies are always responsible for ensuring that the workplace is free of discrimination related to gender, age, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Employees must be treated equally while also taking into account, among other things, the needs of men and women in sanitary facilities. It can also be about meeting different religious needs, such as prayer rooms in the workplace.

Sweden has come a relatively long way, although there are great opportunities for improvement in Sweden’s work against discrimination as well as in that for gender equality and diversity. This is something that Swedish companies should bear in mind in their international business activities. By either encouraging or establishing standards that are applicable throughout the value chain, you can have a positive influence on working conditions.

Typically, when hiring new employees or promoting existing staff, companies may be particularly at risk of discriminating against people due to gender, ethnic origin, disability or sexual orientation. More information can be found on the ILO Equality and discrimination page.


Forced Labour

ILO video on forced labour

In many industries and geographical regions of the world, forced labour is a significant risk area. Forced labour is defined as work or a service performed by a person under threat of punishment, which he or she has not volunteered to. It includes debt slavery, i.e. when labour is demanded as a means of payment for a loan. It also includes trafficking of human beings and other forms of modern slavery such as contract workers performing work in another country for a certain period of time in exchange for paid travel, accommodation and food. See more on the ILO page, “forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking” and on the UN Global Compact page, “fourth principle.

Making payments or reimbursements does not necessarily imply circumstances of forced labour. Work should be done voluntarily and employees should be free to leave their work duties, in accordance with established rules.

The following circumstances are considered, or indicative of, forced labour:

  • That the company has seized the employees’ passports / ID documents
  • There is a signed “voluntary cooperation agreement”
  • That the company did not provide employees with a copy of the employment contract
  • That the company requires employees to sign a “notice of termination” to obtain employment
  • That the company requires employees to pay a recruitment fee
  • That the company retains employees’ first salary as a deposit
  • That the company requires employees to pay for education related to work (the company  must pay for all job-related education)
  • That the company forces employees to work overtime
  • That the employer does not officially exist

Forced labour is forbidden, yet it exists in most industries around the world. According to the ILO, 24.9 million people are currently subject to forced labour, 15.7 million of whom are women and girls and 9.2 million men and boys.

Workers can be forced to work long days in dangerous conditions where they are victims of both mental and physical ill health. Opportunities for rest, receiving health care, as well as shower and toilet facilities may be limited and they are often away from their families for long periods of time.


Vulnerable industries and geographical areas

Even if your company has no links whatsoever to forced labour conditions, there is a risk of such occurrences in the supply chain. Service providers in housekeeping or other domestic services can, by all appearances, give the impression that working conditions are good, but on closer inspection the real conditions may be totally in violation of acceptable standards. The same problem arises in many factories around the world. The risk of forced labour is highest in household work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment. Those who are most vulnerable to forced labour are immigrant workers and indigenous peoples. The ILO report from 2017 provides more information and statistics on regions and industries.

ILOs rapport tvångsarbete


Child Labour

Child labour is prevalent in many parts of the world but more so in specific industries and regions. According to ILO statistics, 152 million children are exposed to child labour, of which 88 million are boys and 64 million are girls. Africa is ranked highest in terms of both the number of children exposed to child labour and the highest proportion of children on the continent subjected to it. According to ILO statistics, one in five children in Africa aged between 5 and 17 years is exposed to child labour. 

ILO statistics (in thousands) regarding the number of children aged 5-17 years exposed to child labour and percentages between industries:

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You will find further statistics in the 2017 ILO report:

ILOs rapport barnarbete


If you are active in high-risk markets and within the above industries, you need to pay particular attention to the supply chain. Suppliers are not always aware of current legislation and may also be unaware that it is wrong to allow children to work. There is also a risk that suppliers have insufficient processes in place to verify the age of their workers, who in many cases lack national ID documents, birth certificates, medical records, etc.

However, not all work performed by children is deemed to be child labour. It may include work that does not affect their health, schooling and personal development. What is deemed to be child labour will depend on the age of the child, the nature of the work, the number of hours and under which conditions the child will be working. The definition of child labour may vary from country to country and between different sectors within countries. Nonetheless, Swedish companies should always comply with international conventions and guidelines at the very least, regardless of existing local laws which may be sub-standard or lacking from an international perspective.

Child labour is often defined as work depriving children of their childhood, potential and dignity, and which is detrimental to their physical and mental development. Requirements exists regarding working hours – there must be no night shifts involved and a maximum of ten hours per day is allowed for school, work and transportation.

Child labour is work that is:

  • Mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children, and which
  • Deprives them of the opportunity to attend school, or
  • Forces them to leave school early, or
  • Forces them to combine education with work which is too heavy a burden and results in long days.

Most countries in the world follow the ILO Convention on Minimum Age (No 138) with the following age limits:

  • General minimum working age is 15 years or more
  • Light work may be undertaken from the age of 13 years
  • Heavy or dangerous work may be undertaken from the age of 18 years

In countries where the economy and education level are not sufficiently developed, the following age limits apply:

  • General minimum working age is 14 years or more
  • Light work may be undertaken from the age of 12 years
  • Heavy or dangerous work may be undertaken from the age of 18 years

It may be difficult to distinguish between definitions of light and dangerous work. Work that appears light, such as serving tea or distributing mail in a factory, can be classified as dangerous, depending on the work environment and safety conditions. In order to determine this, a deeper analysis of the work needs to be undertaken. This should be carried out with the help of experienced local or international organisations. In the most extreme forms of child labour, children are exposed to slave labour conditions and are separated from their families.

You should also pay attention to workplaces in the supply chain where, due to the absence of child care, children of working parents are regularly forced to accompany their parents to work. This can pose a great danger to children, both mentally and physically. Save the Children has developed a sustainability model with steps that companies can take to mitigate adverse impact on children. More information about the sustainability model can be found on the Save the Children website. See also ILO Mobile App: Eliminating and Preventing Child Labour Checkpoints app.


Refused permission to join a union

According to international conventions, everyone has the right to freedom of association, but in several countries and industries, workers face the risk of discrimination and unfavourable working conditions if they join a union. Freedom of association refers to the right of all employers and employees to voluntarily establish and join groups to promote and defend their occupational interests.

The advantage of having union representation is that it makes it easier for employers and employees to understand each other’s challenges and wishes. Freedom of association and collective agreements open up channels of dialogue can develop your company, its stakeholders and society as a whole. Collective agreements are often more effective and more flexible than government regulations. Swedish companies should set good examples, setting out requirements and encouraging freedom of association throughout the value chain.

If employees are refused the opportunity of collectively expressing their views, this may result in reduced productivity, reduced company profitability and, in the worst case lead to conflict and demonstrations. In some countries it is forbidden to join a union. To ensure that agreements are adapted and meet international guidelines at all times, Business Sweden recommends you to contact and discuss this issue with global trade unions. 

Preventive measures

To avoid the risk of human rights violations due to sub-standard working conditions in the value chain, your company should take the following actions:

  • Comply with laws and international guidelines. Ensure you understand national laws related to working conditions in the countries in which you operate. At the very least, you should always follow international guidelines. This is particularly important in regions where legislation is inadequate or non-compliant.
  • Include forced labour, child labour, discrimination and freedom of association in your risk analysis. Review your company’s performance to determine whether there are risks of sub-standard working conditions, and identify vulnerable business situations
  • Make use of national and international guidance tools (see guideline documents on the right)
  • Establish a clear policy regarding working conditions and working relationships, including objectives and requirements for business partners to follow that ensure, for example
    • A safe and healthy working environment
    • Salary – not only the minimum wage dictated by law, but a wage level corresponding to living costs
    • Equal pay for equal work
    • Equal rights and obligations regardless of gender, age, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, etc.
    • Diversity and gender equality
    • Freedom of association and trade unions
    • Ensure that all employees are aware of their rights. Read more in step 2 and 3.
  • Communicate the policy within the company’s code of conduct and educate all employees. Read more about this in step 3 and 4.
  • Collaborate and discuss with organisations and NGOs in the markets in which your business is operational, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. This is particularly important in high-risk countries.
    • Using ‘due diligence’, carry out a thorough business inspection of your potential business partners before making business critical decisions. This should include minor services such as cleaning and other office facility services.
  • Educate and inform your partners about laws, risks and the company’s code of conduct. Read more about this in step 4.
    • Communicate your policies clearly to suppliers and request that they do the same with their subcontractors. Read more about this in step 4.
    • Implement a whistle-blower function where employees and partners can report any suspected shortcomings. Read more about this in step 4.
    • Carry out audits of your business and of your partners with the help of qualified experts. Read more about this in step 4.
    • Contact Business Sweden if you have general questions about sustainability or if you want to know more about the risks and opportunities in a particular market