Government employees sailing on the Titanic

After the wage revisions, it is almost impossible for research assistants at Uppsala University to reach the current median salary, writes Mert Can Yilmaz.

Mert Can Yilmaz
This is a discussion article. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

When the mighty Titanic sank, survival rates narrated the same old story. 62 percent of the first-class passengers survived, while 41 percent of the second-class passengers made it out alive. Only 1 in 4 third-class passengers survived the disaster.

We are about to sink. We are experiencing record-high inflation in Sweden in the last 30 years. It significantly affects the cost of living for each of us. Yet, in parallel with the Titanic case, it hits some of us disproportionately, as some of us are sailing in third-class, and the current situation forces us to revisit our plans and prospects for the future.

I am a research assistant at Uppsala University. Research assistants’ primary task is to contribute to academic endeavors in a meaningful manner by learning from the existing literature and past experiences, by standing on the shoulders of giants. As such, our role is mainly to support and strengthen the backbone of research projects. We assist, collect, prepare, analyze, communicate and we are often enthusiastic about these tasks. However, regardless of how passionate we may be about our study areas or our research projects, feeling safe and secure comes first and financial security is an integral part of it.

Saco, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations, reports that research assistants earn the 9th lowest wages among the 94 listed technical and administrative job salaries at Uppsala University, with a median monthly wage of 28 300 SEK as of June 30. Nothing much has changed since the end of June for research assistants, except for the impact of inflation in Sweden getting more severe. Though many of the research projects at the university rely on the extensive work of research assistants, the salary is far from being a competitive one, an amount lower than the overall median salary in Sweden, which is around 33 000 SEK.

This year, the salary revisions were a shock to many of us as government employees. Some of us were naively expecting to get a somewhat inflation-adjusted raise or maybe some type of perks to offset inflation. It turned out that we couldn’t be more wrong.

As agreed upon during central negotiations between the union and the Swedish Agency for Government Employers (Arbetsgivarverket) in the autumn of 2020 and was valid for three years, the salary increments in 2022 are set at 1.8 percent – with little to no impact on our wallets. It is nothing when compared to inflation, and it is even more problematic for people receiving lower wages.

In the October 2022 newsletter of Saco-S’s Uppsala University branch, this situation was explained as follows:

“We are in the midst of this year’s salary review and we have received many questions about how the current inflation will affect salaries. The answer that we get from our central organization is that there is an understanding between the central employer and employee organizations that a compensation for the inflation would only add more fuel to the fire and increase the inflation rate. They argue that with a ”salary carousel” we could see a collapse of the financial market of the same magnitude as in the early 90s (with interest rates of 500 %). This means that in this autumn’s salary review, we can expect rather modest adjustments in relation to inflation, but hopefully the inflation rate will decrease soon and we can get more in our wallets again.”

Despite being highly controversial, from a certain macroeconomics perspective, the union’s position might be understandable. Though the comparison between the Swedish economy in early 1990s and the situation in 2020s sounds like a logical fallacy (i.e. false equivalence) to me, I am not trained in economics and I may not be able to grasp the full picture.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: such macro-level decisions often miss micro-level grievances. Ultimately, it can be argued that the university (and all other government institutions) have lost its competitive position in the labor market, and skilled labor will now have even greater incentives to seek employment in the private sector. In this respect, once again, the significance and the role of research assistants’ work should not be undermined on the path to carrying Uppsala University to the forefront of research in Sweden.

Things were already more complicated than before for not only a high number of research assistants but also a significant number of other university personnel since the new government came to power. On November 30, the Swedish parliament voted that the minimum salary requirement for labor migrants should be higher for receiving work permits. In the proposal, the exact amount was not stated. Yet, we know what it might be.

According to the Tidö Agreement proposed by the parties in the coalition, the minimum salary requirement is planned to be raised to the median income in Sweden, which is around 33 000 SEK, as mentioned earlier. If the minimum salary requirement is raised to this amount, thousands of people across Sweden will be affected by this, and at Uppsala University, research assistants will be among the first groups that are strongly hit by this change as there will be no way to recruit someone from outside the EU for such positions.

Currently, it looks nearly impossible for the significant majority of research assistants’ salaries at Uppsala University to reach the current median wage level. In their December 2022 newsletter, Saco-S at Uppsala University mentioned that the central negotiations for 2023 salary revisions have already started and “there may be tough central negotiations due to the high inflation” they said. This, however, will not be enough for immigrant research assistants if the government decides to implement the relevant article in Tidö Agreement in the next few months. This ambiguous, precarious and vulnerable situation, along with the low salaries and the rising cost of living every day, is a psychological challenge for many researchers who are currently residing in Sweden with a work permit, including myself.

As a whole, the decision to increase the level of minimum wage requirement will possibly have a cascading effect on the Swedish economy, and the potential challenge for academia should not be neglected.

To sum, following the salary revisions, things seem dire. At least in the short term, the situation of government employees is and will remain worrying. Thus, as a research assistant at Uppsala University, I feel like I need to ask this: The Titanic is sinking. Is anyone hearing us?

Mert Can Yilmaz
Research Assistant, Uppsala University

Mert Can Yilmaz

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