Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Red Tape in the Welfare State

I have now been in Sweden for a month, and I am still without a full-time job. Finding work in a country with high unemployment was always going to be hard. Not speaking Swedish or having any vocational qualifications also obviously limits my options, but I’ve also been hampered by Sweden’s love of red tape.

Despite a reputation for efficiency, I’ve noticed a lot of things in Sweden are actually very slow and very bureaucratic. Ankie and I are still waiting to be connected with broadband internet, having ordered it eight weeks ago. We’ve called them up numerous times but each time get a different story. The first time they claimed we were already connected. Another time they offered to re-order it, meaning we’d have to wait another 2-4 weeks. This was also going to mean we could no longer claim the special deal that they were advertising when we first ordered broadband. After a while we decided to use the threat of cancelling and switching to another provider. But the operator just called our bluff claiming, “Well, if that’s what you want do.” Customer service is typically very apathetic, with no sense of urgency.
We have also been trying to subscribe to the local newspaper. After three weeks we were yet to receive a single copy so we gave them a call this morning. Turns out we haven’t been receiving the paper because the name printed on our door isn’t us, but the previous tenant, and we hadn’t got round to changing it yet. Would we get a refund for the past three weeks? No, because despite the fact we haven’t received a paper, the delivery boy has actually been calling into our apartment block everyday with our newspaper since our subscription started. But until we change the names on our door, he is not going to actually deliver it. Did they think to contact us? Maybe a phone call, or get the delivery boy to ring our doorbell since he is there anyway? ‘No, that’s not really our problem.’

Yet despite this inefficientcy, Sweden does strike me as a very orderly society. I’ve noticed Swedes love queues, with every single shop having long patient queues outfront. There is an ice-cream stand near the Central Station that I walk past nearly everyday, and every time there is a 15-20 metre queue out-front. And everyone just stands there patiently, seemingly unperturbed at having to spend half their lunch break waiting for an ice cream.
Those machines issuing numbered tickets are popular, with even the smallest business insisting all customers take a ticket before they can be served. Last week Ankie and I went into an electronics shop, where Ankie had to get a ticket not only to speak to a sales assistant to ask for advice, but later on in the same shop had to take another ticket to be served by a cashier afterwards. The upside is that when you’re just browsing and really don’t want to be hassled by a sales assistant, staff won’t touch you unless you get a numbered ticket.
Every purchase requires a receipt, no matter how small. The other day I was given a receipt after buying a take-away coffee from a cafe. Why? I am I expected to claim it back on tax? Or return it if I’m not happy with it?
Things are so orderly that everything is calculated in very exact measurements. If you want a hamburger, it’s not a choice of small or large, but 90g or 150g. Beer doesn’t come in pints or pots, but in 40cl. I was even watching an American film on television where one of the characters said something like, “it’s hot, it must be 100 degrees.” So what do the Swedish subtitles say: “It’s hot, it must be 38.6 degrees.”

As for job hunting, it isn’t as simple as just sending in your CV and waiting for a reply. Often I’m asked to register my details on a database, providing every detail of my life to date. Then I can submit my CV, only to be told that someone might contact you in regards to the job in 3 - 4 weeks time. These aren’t applications for big corporate jobs, but basic menial jobs. Even when I handed out my CV in person to pubs and restaurants, I was generally told I might be contacted in a few weeks.

But I’m making some progress. I now have a Personal Number, which is integral for doing anything and everything in Sweden. I’m now on the population registry and in the system. In the eyes of Swedish bureaucrats, I now exist. Finally I can enrol in Swedish classes, borrow books from the library and set up a bank account. And it only took four weeks!

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