Working in Denmark For Members

Can foreign workers be exploited on the Danish labour market?

Elizabeth Anne Brown
Elizabeth Anne Brown - [email protected]
Can foreign workers be exploited on the Danish labour market?
A construction site in Copenhagen in October 2023. Trade unions say foreign workers should check their employer is a member of a Danish employers' confederation. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark prides itself on its work-life balance and favourable working conditions. But foreign workers may be surprised to learn that labour rights that are, in many countries, guaranteed by law—such as a standard work week, overtime pay, and even workplace safety requirements—can be relatively easy for employers to opt out of.


Rather than laws set by Danish parliament, labour rights in Denmark have been established through negotiations between workers’ unions and employers’ unions.

There’s a single collective agreement (overenskomst) for each industry—for instance, the welders’ agreement lays out the labour conditions for wealders across Denmark. But what workers new to the Danish economy may not understand is that employers can sidestep the terms of the collective agreement by not joining the employers’ union. That leaves them free to set their own conditions in a separate contract with their employees.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What is a Danish collective bargaining agreement?

Unfortunately, many workers only realise the distinction when something goes wrong: their employer announces a pay decrease, or asks them to start working at 3 a.m., or come in on holidays for no additional pay—something that feels illegal—and the foreign worker realises they have no recourse.

There’s not even a mechanism to settle disputes with an employer who isn’t part of an employers’ union in the event of illegal discrimination or harassment. “There’s no labour court” where individual workers can address disputes with individual employers, says Anthony Sylvester, a representative for the Danish Union 3F. “There’s only the labour court between the employers’ union and the employees’ union.”


Few laws, many unions

Denmark has been required to legislate some labour conditions in order to meet the European Union minimum requirements. That includes the Danish Holidays Act, which guarantees five weeks paid holiday for all full time employees; the Danish sygedagpengeloven, or Sickness Benefit Act; and the Danish Act on Parental Leave.

But wages, the number of hours in a standard work week, workplace safety conditions, and how overtime is to be compensated are not legislated. And foreign workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by these employers who aren’t part of the employers’ unions.

Anthony Sylvester is a national policy advisor on immigration policies at 3F, Denmark’s largest trade union. (Its English name is the United Federation of Danish Workers, and in Danish it’s Fagligt Fælles Forbund.) “We have almost 50,000 members with migrant backgrounds, from 163 countries,” Sylvester told the Local Denmark.

Sylvester says that foreign workers more often end up working for these ‘rogue’ employers because they simply don’t know to ask whether their potential boss is a member of the employer’s union—and thus subject to union rules. “Eighty two percent of employers are organised” and must abide by those collective agreements, but that leaves 18 percent of Danish employers who aren’t.

Since it can be challenging to determine what union contract applies (does working in a pastry shop that also serves coffee count as a food service, hospitality, or bakery industry job?), Sylvester says the best strategy is to ask a potential employer directly about their union membership. Many employers include a note about their union membership on online application pages, he adds.

Another good resource is the Danish Trade Union Confederation (Fagbevægelsens Hovedorganisation, or FH)—a sort of union of unions, Sylvester says.


‘Social dumping’

Another way workers can be exploited is by foreign companies operating in Denmark that try to evade the requirements set by Danish law. While Denmark has measures in place to prevent ‘social dumping’ it’s still widespread.

In 2022, inspections at workplaces from restaurants to construction sites to cleaning businesses turned up evidence of social dumping at more than half of Danish businesses inspected, the Ministry of Tax reported in March 2023. Soon after, the Danish government earmarked 673 million kroner to prevent ‘social dumping’ from 2024-2027.

Don’t settle for less than the Danes do

Foreign workers who accept jobs from these unaffiliated employers are often leaving money on the table. But according to Sylvester, it’s still an acceptable arrangement for some workers used to extremely low wages in their home countries.

“Even some of them know that they can be exploited, they don’t care,” he says. “They say, ‘Back home, I only get 5 Euro per hour. In Denmark, if I get just 15 Euro per hour, I am getting more money than I am back home.”

Sylvester says that unscrupulous employers know this and are “using the migrant’s readiness to do whatever it takes to please employers, just to get access into the [Danish job] market.”

But Sylvester urges foreign workers not to sell themselves short. “Our unemployment rates are so low you can ask for more. You can get more in Denmark.”


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