For members


Everything foreigners in Denmark need to know about Danish trade unions

On May 1st, Denmark will celebrate Labour Day. But the labour movement in Denmark means more than a day off work for many. Here are 10 things foreigners employed in Denmark should know about the country’s labour unions. 

3f headquarters
3F is one of Denmark's biggest trade unions. Union membership is common in Denmark and employers generally expect staff to be members of a union. File photo: Ólafur Steinar Rye Gestsson/Ritzau Scanpix

Work life balance, high salaries, and ample vacation time are but a few benefits with which foreigners working in Denmark are familiar. 

And yet, many would be surprised to learn that these benefits aren’t protected by Danish law. Instead, they are the result of collective bargaining between Denmark’s trade unions and employers/employer organisations. 

“There aren’t many laws regulating the Danish labour market,” Mads Storgaard Pedersen, consultant and assistant attorney at the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI), told The Local. Instead, trade unions negotiate with employers’ organisations like DI every few years to develop collective agreements regulating many aspects of Denmark’s labour market, from minimum wage to paid parental leave. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Denmark has among the highest union density; two-thirds of Denmark’s workforce belongs to a union, compared to an EU average of just 23%.

However, union density in Denmark has fallen from 79 percent of all employees in 2010 to 69 percent in 2020, according to Statistics Denmark. 

One strategy to increase union membership taken by the Danish Society of Engineers (IDA), a trade union for engineering, science, and IT professionals, is to enrol more foreign workers in Denmark. 

“We experience a lot of internationals coming to Denmark who don’t know the system and are scared to join a union because they don’t know how it will be looked upon by their employer,” Stine Lund, senior legal consultant at IDA, told The Local. “They need to understand that union membership isn’t viewed as a bad thing by employers.”

Lund stressed that every worker in Denmark is entitled to organisation in a union and that employers cannot discriminate against employees for union membership. “Furthermore,” she added, “union membership is both common and often necessary in Denmark, from blue collar workers to top management.”

Given enough time working in Denmark, it’s likely that a union may reach out to you about membership. Alternatively, you may decide that it’s beneficial to join a union on your own. 

Either way, here are 10 things foreigners should know about trade unions in Denmark.

1) Employees covered by collective agreements won’t have to negotiate general employment terms, whether or not they are union members.

“Although two-thirds of Denmark’s workers are union members, 82 percent are covered by collective agreements,” said Peter Waldorff, international consultant at FH, Denmark’s largest trade union confederation. “As long as a workplace has a collective agreement, it covers both members and non-members.”

Waldorff said there are large central agreements in both the public and private sectors. Employees whose contracts are regulated by a collective agreement won’t individually have to negotiate general terms of employment, like working hours or minimum salary. 

The particular collective agreement upon which your contract is based may be mentioned in your contract, and if it isn’t, Waldorff said it’s perfectly fine to ask your employer. 

“There is not the same level of union busting in Denmark as there are in some other countries,” he said.

2) Employees not covered by collective agreements negotiate their own contract terms.

Not all jobs in Denmark are included in collective agreements. This includes a relatively large number of white collar private sector employees, Waldorff said, who instead negotiate their own contract terms directly with their employer (often with help from their trade union). 

Lund, at IDA, said employees not covered by collective agreements still benefit from Denmark’s major collective agreements. “The Danish labour market has a very low unemployment rate and high demand for skilled labour at a high market value,” she said. The benefits secured in collective agreements often influence the working conditions private employers not subject to those agreements must offer in order to be competitive, Lund added.

3) Union membership may be a way to safeguard the continuation of this system.

All workers in Denmark are free to join a trade union, writes employment service for international talent Work In Denmark: “Without members of trade unions, there would be no legitimacy for social partners to regulate via collective agreement or to enforce the rules of the labour market.” 

“The broader perspective on why to join a union in Denmark may be the need to contribute to this great system,” Lund said. However, she added, “Even internationals who only plan to stay in Denmark for a year or two and may not be motivated to contribute to that system can benefit from union membership on an individual basis, from better understanding the labour market they are entering, their market value in Denmark, and what employment conditions they can expect.”

4) Outside of collective agreements, trade unions can still help members negotiate a fair and attractive contract. 

One of the most common ways IDA helps its members not covered by collective agreements is with salary negotiations. 

“If you’re going to negotiate your own salary, it’s important to know your market value in Denmark,” Lund said. “People should know that salaries in Denmark are high, but so are taxes and living expenses. It’s easier to know what you can reasonably ask for when you have the statistics.”

Counselling on salary and negotiating tactics is available to all IDA members, but the union will also inform internationals considering their first job offer in Denmark of suitable salary levels “to protect the person from accepting an offer with a salary that does not correspond to their market value,” Lund said.

IDA said it also reviews members’ contracts and can help members negotiate for more holiday time or different parental leave conditions. It also makes sure contracts align with Danish legislation and helps identify and explain potential issues.

5) Trade unions can help foreign workers navigate the Danish workplace. 

Trade unions also answer member questions and help if issues arise with one’s employer, through counselling, moderation, and legal aid if need be. For example, IDA has faced many questions – particularly from foreign members – about working remotely from their home countries for extended periods of time.

Another common area in which IDA gets involved is unjust terminations. “Even though it’s easy to hire and fire in Denmark, there is still protective legislation for employees,” Lund said. For example, IDA has assisted with countless cases in which an employee fired for performance issues wasn’t given a written warning prior to termination. 

“We can step in and have that conversation with the employer to get our member the compensation they’re entitled to,” Lund said, or file a lawsuit in the rare instances where the issue cannot be resolved outside of court. 

In the event of a termination, a union representative will be there alongside the employee, employer, and witness, and can help members receive the best possible departure package.

They also play a significant role in workplace safety and health.

6) Trade unions also offer continuing education, networking opportunities, and discounts, and many offer unemployment insurance.

Unions can also be an opportunity for continuing professional education and networking, the latter of which Lund said may be particularly useful to internationals who may be building a  professional network in Denmark from the ground up.

Many unions also have their own unemployment insurance funds (A-kasse), but you are not obligated to join. Additionally, trade unions offer discounts on some products and services, like insurance. 

READ ALSO: Should I sign up with a Danish trade union and A-kasse?

Lund said foreigners working in Denmark shouldn’t have any issue utilising any union benefits available to Danes, so long as they have a CPR (personal registration) number. The only challenge may be that some resources and events will not be available in English, though most unions’ websites are available in Danish, English, and some other languages.

7) Union members may be required to participate in collective action, such as strikes.

Another aspect of union membership is that members may be required to participate in industrial action, such as strikes, blockades, or solidarity actions. 

For example, the 2021 Danish nurses strike organised by the Danish Nurses’ Organisation (DSR), which represents 95% of nurses in Denmark. “The nurses’ strike is an example of the results of unsuccessful negotiations on the renewal of their collective agreement,” Waldorff said. 

In this case, he continued, DSR called the strike and decided which members would be required to withdraw from work to join the strike. As the strike continued from June to August 2021 (one of the longest strikes in recent Danish history), an increasing number of union members were called to strike until the dispute was resolved. 

However, Waldorff added, “In Denmark, strikes are relatively rare.”

Lund said collective agreement conflicts almost never happen in the academic labour market. “We haven’t been in a situation where that measure has been taken for many, many years,” she said. 

However, if that were to happen, foreign employees who are union members would participate in the strike just as Danish members would. Although the employees involved in the strike would stop receiving their salaries, Lund continued, they would instead receive conflict aid from the union, “meaning the person would not need to receive dagpenge or other social aid,” an important distinction for internationals working in Denmark. The employer would also be required to re-employ all employees once the conflict is resolved, she added. 

According to FH’s legal department, Waldorff said, participation in legally-called industrial action should not affect work permits. 

The Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI) confirmed this to be the case, issuing the following statement to The Local: “Third-country citizens will not have their residence permit revoked on the basis of employment, if they don’t work at their employer due to the reason that they participate in a legal labour dispute during their employment. EU/EEA citizens residing in Denmark will not lose their right to reside in Denmark on the basis of participating in a legal labour dispute.” 

8) Foreigners working in management roles should be familiar with the ways unions work here.

Lund recommends foreigners in management roles in Denmark establish a positive relationship with the shop steward (a worker who’s been elected by his or her colleagues to represent them in discussions with management). 

“Most  labour disputes are resolved through negotiations within the company,” she said, “so the shop steward is one of the most important friends you can have as a manager.”

9) Here’s how to find the right trade union for you.

The largest trade union confederation by far is FH, with 1.3 million members ranging from metalworkers and shopkeepers to police officers and nurses. The second largest is Akademikerne, which has around 300,000 members with advanced degrees, such as engineers, lawyers, or doctors. 

Both confederations are composed of affiliated unions, divided by profession or industry. 

“When it comes to traditional trade unions, the union you’ll join is to some extent chosen for you,” Lund said. For example, a dentist wouldn’t be able to join the union for psychologists and vice versa. “There’s very little overlap.”

FH’s Waldorff said it’s quite easy to find the right union for your industry simply by Googling your industry, plus ‘trade union’ and ‘Denmark’. He also recommends asking one’s colleagues if there is a shop steward in the workplace. “Then, you can ask that person for advice regarding joining a union.” 

Traditional trade union membership fees vary, but are usually around 500 kroner per month, Waldorff said. Up to 6000 kroner of that is tax deductible each year.

In addition to traditional unions, there are also ‘yellow’ unions, which organise employees into a single union across many industries. Yellow unions often have lower subscription rates than traditional trade unions, but cannot negotiate collective agreements. 

However, Lund stresses the importance of weighing the pros and cons of each union type, as a non-specialised union may not have the data specific to one’s profession that can be useful during contract negotiations. Educational resources and networking opportunities will also be more general. 

10) Foreigners may play a bigger role in 2023’s collective agreement than they have in previous negotiations.

The growing population of foreigner workers in Denmark has presented new challenges to consider at the next collective agreement negotiation in January 2023, said DI’s Pedersen. “We need to figure out how this trend fits into collective agreements,” he said. 

“Among other things, we’re trying to find ways to align and convert social benefits in our collective agreements with employees’ rights in their home countries more easily,” he added, particularly across the EU. For example, making it easier and more transparent for posted employees to retain their retirement scheme from their home country.

“We are constantly trying to anticipate future changes in the labour market to ensure collective agreements remain relevant,” FH’s Waldorff said. A recent issue has been how to handle platform workers, like delivery service drivers. Another challenge for the future is Denmark’s growing deficit of skilled trades workers, like electricians and bricklayers.

“There’s no doubt that most foreigners coming to Denmark have an academic background,” Waldorff said. However, he added, it’s now becoming a pattern to source Denmark’s skilled trades workers from other European countries, too. 

“There are a lot of people coming from other countries to fill jobs in the agriculture, construction, and hospitality sectors,” Waldorff said. Some of these people, he added, are vulnerable to social dumping (where workers receive substandard wages and working conditions). “We’ve been taking a lot of efforts to organise foreign workers to prevent this from happening.”

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For members


How have work permit rules been changed in Denmark?

After the Danish parliament last week voted to ease some work permit requirements, we take a closer look at which rules have been changed.

How have work permit rules been changed in Denmark?

Parliament to voted last week to make changes to Denmark’s immigrations rules designed to make it easier to for companies to hire internationally.

The bill, which was submitted to parliament in February by immigration minister Kaare Dybvad Bek, permanently reduces the minimum wage required under the Pay Limit Scheme (Beløbsordning), making it easier for companies to recruit skilled workers from non-EU countries.

It also opens up the country’s fast-track work permit certification scheme to companies with as few as ten employees, extends the job search period for foreign graduates of Danish universities to three years, adds more job titles to the Positive List for People with Higher Education, and extends the Start-up Denmark scheme for entrepreneurs. 

The new rules come into effect on April 1st, after which work permits can be applied for under the new rules.

Pay Limit Scheme 

The Pay Limit Scheme is an arrangement by which work permits are granted to non-EU nationals. Under the scheme, work permits can be granted to applicants who have been offered a wage above a set amount by a Danish employer.

Under the old rules that minimum wage was 448,000 kroner per year. The law change permanently reduces it to 375,000 kroner per year.

Foreign workers can now be given a work permit under the scheme on the lower wage, but it should be noted that that jobs given to non-EU citizens hired internationally are still subject to rules ensuring equivalent pay for the roles.

This means that if the role being hired for was normally paid 425,000 kroner, for example, employers will still have to pay this level, and not the 375,000 kroner minimum. 

Fast-track work permit 

The Fast-track Scheme allows certified companies to employ foreign nationals with special qualifications more quickly and easily than through the standard pathway.

If an employer and employee agree they want the new job to be started quickly, the employer can be given power of attorney to submit an application under the Fast-track Scheme on behalf the employee. It is a prerequisite that the employer is certified to use the Fast-track Scheme.

In short, this means that employers, by registering the scheme, can enable their foreign hires to be granted a temporary work permit so they can start their job immediately after arriving in Denmark, or – if the employee is not exempted from Danish visa rules – get them a permit including an entry visa within 10 days.

The new rules allow companies with as few as 10 employees to register for the scheme, a reduction from the minimum of 20 under the old rules.

Job search period for foreign graduates of Danish universities 

The outgoing rules allow students who have completed and been awarded a Danish Professional Bachelor’s (vocational), Bachelor’s, Master’s degree or PhD degree to can for an establishment card.

This is a residence and work permit that allows the graduated student to stay in Denmark for two years, the period of time the permit is valid, to enable them to apply for jobs and establish themselves on the labour market.

There are certain conditions attached to the establishment card: You must not give up your Danish address or stay abroad for longer than 6 successive months, and the permit does not allow you to work in other Schengen countries.

Under the new rules, all foreign nationals who complete degree programmes with the above classifications will automatically be given a three-year (a longer period than the two years given under the old rules) “job seeking period” in which they have the right to live and work in Denmark.

Positive List for People with Higher Education

The Positive List is a list of professions experiencing a shortage of qualified professionals in Denmark.

Danish Residence and work permits can be granted based on offers of jobs included in the Positive List. Applicants must have an educational background that makes them qualified for the job.

The Positive List is usually updated twice a year, in January and July, but the new rules open up this list to a broader range of applicants.

No information is currently available as to who will be covered by this broader scope, but the now-passed bill which implements the changes mentions that “regional labour market councils” and “specialised a-kasser” [unemployment insurance providers] can conclude there is “a national lack of qualified labour” and that job offers can thereby qualify for the positive list.

Start-up Denmark scheme for entrepreneurs

Start-up Denmark is a scheme for foreign entrepreneurs. Two-year work permits can be granted based on a business idea which must be approved by a panel of experts appointed by the Danish Business Authority. If the business is successful, the permits can be extended for three years at a time.

The scheme can be used by both individuals and teams of up to three people who want to start a business together in Denmark through a joined business plan.

There must be specific Danish business interests that favour of the establishment of the business in Denmark, and normal businesses such as restaurants or retail do not normally qualify under the existing rules.

However, like with the Positive List, the rule changes open the scheme to a broader range of applicants.

While it seems the new rules could benefit a broad target group of potential skilled foreign workers who see opportunities in Denmark, they “may be a game changer for the smaller companies hiring employees within industries with lower salary thresholds where the new hire has only a few years of experience,” Rikke Wolfsen, country manager Global Immigration practice with the Danish section of financial services company EY, told The Local in previous comments about the lower salary thresholds. 

Full details of the new rules and their relevant application pages and materials will be published on the website of the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI), the agency which processes work permit applications, on April 1st.

We will also report additional detail relating to, for example, the Positive List and job seeking period for graduates.