Robots Welcome: How Sweden Protects Workers, Not Jobs

GARPENBERG, Sweden — From a mining control room, carved out of rock half a mile underground, Mika Persson has watched the robots on his monitor steadily advance in skill over the years, replacing more and more human jobs. He doesn’t mind. They replaced his once.

A few years prior at the New Boliden mine he was manually steering the loader, breathing diesel exhaust and rock dust where they extract silver, zinc, and lead deposits. Things are better for him today thanks to the these robots.

Ylva Johansson, Swedish minister for employment and integration puts it well, “You ask a union leader ‘Are you afraid of new technology?’ they will answer, ‘No, I’m afraid of old technology,’” “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”

Sweden is famous for its social welfare system, and that has eased concerns over automation making human toil obsolete. Even as technology becomes more sophisticated, Mr. Persson isn’t concerned that humans will be taken out of the picture. “There are so many jobs in this mine that even if this job disappears, they will have another one. The company will take care of us.”

Elsewhere, workers manage their anxieties as they always have, but where the story may have once been about cheaper migrant labour taking their jobs, or worse yet, having them exported to another country, a new threat looms that can’t be contained by borders: the machines.

A key difference is that in Sweden, at businesses like the Boliden Mine, unions are powerful, trust between employers and employees is solid, and these hushed fears of replacement are hard to come by. Here, workers share in the benefits of increased productivity: more robots might mean a shorter work day, or bigger bonuses for everyone.

In America, Scandinavian countries are often perceived as complacent, nanny-state socialists, and attitudes prefer the sharper image of a Silicon Valley hustler bootstrapping their way to a billion dollars, winner take all.

Swedes, however, believe in a more sustainable model in the age of automation, preferring to maintain their system that works and guarantees them a future, even if that does comes with a 60% tax rate.

But what about innovation? “A good safety net is good for entrepreneurship,” says Carl Melin, policy director at Futurion, a research institution in Stockholm. “If a project doesn’t succeed, you don’t have to go broke.”

In contrast to the United States where loss of employment can mean dominos of catastrophic fallout, Scandinavian countries provide ample unemployment benefits, and companies extensively fund job training programs.

This training is partially responsible for eighty percent of Swedes expressing positive views towards AI and automation, according to a survey this year by the European Commission. A survey by the Pew Research Center found 72 percent of Americans were “worried” about human obsolescence in the workforce.

Americans’ fears of replacement by robots are not unfounded. Research from Oxford University found that almost half of US jobs could disappear in the next 20 years.

In this context, Sweden’s focus on an adaptive workforce may see them find stronger footing with the potential shock of just how far automation pushes humans out of the workforce. .

The Garpenberg mine, where Mika Persson sits with his remote controls has been operating for nearly 800 years. With the advent of wifi, miners can now monitor production the full 60 mile length of roads through the mine.

Fredrik Hases, 41, heads the local union chapter representing technicians. He says, “For us, automation is something good. No one feels like they are taking jobs away. It’s about doing more with the people we’ve got.”