How hard can it be to follow the rules? Pt. II - The Rules Feel a Bit Dangerous.
Following the rules got me heart surgery. But even with a new job, we weren't out of danger from The Boss. Or, the union?
Despite risks and threats, from the Boss - we joined the union. We still trusted the rule of law. We had also learned that the unions are indeed powerful in Sweden, and had nothing else to lose at this point.
It was our understanding that a union stood for the worker. On Kommunals’ website there is a list of all the good things a member can expect to receive. As a paid up union member in Sweden, Noel also wanted to know the union would protect him. He wanted to believe that he had security in the union through their “expert knowledge and influence”, that they would give “legal advice regarding employment” and that he could rely on their “negotiation and legal aid”. He needed that to survive The Boss and the rules. The decision to join the union meant support and guidance, just the thing to help turn the tide.
Shortly after joining, a Safety Officer from Kommunal, Patrick arrived unexpectedly at Noel’s work. This would become a pattern that would later make things much worse, i.e. the union would take steps that we never knew of. Patrick asked to be shown around and was quite appalled. He gave Noel some tips: what was needed for the first-aid kit, the silos were a ‘death trap’ and to be totally avoided, and above all he told Noel that “You have the right to say no to The Boss." A week or so later Patrick called Noel saying he wanted to condemn the workplace entirely. But to do this he needed his supervisor, a Senior Safety Officer, to be present as he did not have such authority. He asked Noel for The Boss’ cellphone number so he could be present during the inspection.
When the Senior Safety Officer from Kommunal, Annette came, The Boss was not present. However, during the site visit, Annette decided that The Boss should be given a fair chance to right all the wrongs with the equipment, etc. before condemning everything. She did, however, confirm what Noel was saying all along - it was illegal for Noel to spray the crops and use the chemicals without certification and equipment.
As she inquired further, she wanted to confirm compliance with all aspects of the labour law by The Boss. To do this, Kommunal would need to send another staff member, a Regional Ombudsman to conduct an audit and go through the employment contract, payslips, everything. Several weeks later this began with the Regional Ombudsman, whom I call "MoneyPenny" as she was the one who made hard negotiations. I would also rather not use her real name, for reasons you will find out later. With all the overtime, missed payments, and benefits, The Boss owed Noel nearly 170,000 SEK.
Kommunal found the salary was too low to start off with, and not in line with collective agreements (kollektivavtal) for Noel's position but - this directly contradicted their official comment (yttrande) for the first work permit application...
MoneyPenny's complete audit of Noel's working conditions, over and above the problems and safety issues found that Noel had been seriously short-changed by The Boss. Not only was the promised training and salary increase forgotten, Kommunal found the salary was too low to start off with, and not in line with collective agreements (kollektivavtal) for Noel's position but - this directly contradicted Kommunal’s official comment (yttrande) for the first work permit application, in 2014. This made us even more nervous about our main issue, our main concern - our residency permits.
To make matters worse, Noel had just filed his timesheet for August. However, when he received his payment it was short. Noel informed Kommunal and The Boss. It turned out, however, that Noel had only sent one ‘page’ of a two-page spreadsheet, and was only paid for that amount. Just a minor administrative error. As penance, The Boss demanded a written apology to himself, his wife, as well as Kommunal, which Noel did.
MoneyPenny from Kommunal genuinely tried to understand our situation with Migrationsverket. She concluded that as the labour law had been broken by The Boss, and not Noel, we were safe. She went on to explain that, "in Sweden labour law protects all who work, even 'black' (illegal) workers."
However, the specific missing payment of The Boss for Noel's vacation pay (semester ersättning), was a concern. Apparently, MoneyPenny decided to strongly pursue this missing payment from The Boss directly. However, we knew nothing about this. Kommunal's arbitration with The Boss without including us would grow to be a reocurring theme, that would create problems for us.
This started with one day MoneyPenny, together with The Boss showed up unannounced in a field where Noel was planting wheat. Apparently, MoneyPenny had demanded to meet The Boss and receive the vacation pay. The Boss, however countered this by claiming the vacation pay had been included in Noel’s monthly salary. And to prove this, he would bring MoneyPenny to visit Noel in person.
Noel was in a tractor when he saw them approach. He stepped down and The Boss began yelling at him, while MoneyPenny watched:
“... If you want more money, in Sweden, send your wife to work!”
This was new to MoneyPenny, but not for us. This had become a rather systematic response since the work permit extension was filed. Further, The Boss said that:
“If this is the way you’re going to do things, I will report you to Skatteverket, for the rent-benefit of your house.”
Indeed, we had been renting a house as well from The Boss. We agreed to pay rent for a house from The Boss because at the beginning he seemed nice. We never got a rental agreement from him though, despite asking repeatedly. In fact, The Boss had increased our rent after less than a year. I know, because I kept all the records and mailed the updated payments on a monthly basis. This created a reaction with Noel, as the home-front was under attack, again. In front of The Boss and MoneyPenny, he said he would go to Skatteverket himself and sort this out. The Boss turned around and walked away, leaving Noel and MoneyPenny speechless, until finally saying:
"Noel, this man is worse than a 2 two year old. You need to find another job."
Noel called and asked me to contact Skatteverket immediately and find out facts on the rent issue. MoneyPenny was also interested, as this could effect all negotiations, and admitted she didn't know anything about this tax. Skatteverket confirmed directly that there was absolutely no basis to this threat, and we had followed all the laws. I sent an email to MoneyPenny outlining the information from Skatteverket. The rent we paid was not a fringe benefit by any stretch of the imagination.
MoneyPenny warned Noel his safety was at risk and explained that the negotiations were fraught with difficulty. Further, as The Boss had broken the law and not kept to the minimum terms as stated in the employment contract, there was no need for Noel to give any notice. He was advised to urgently seek other employment, again. By this time we had no illusions as to what The Boss was.
As one can imagine, all this was beginning to take a toll on our mental and physical health. But that's not who I am.
Before all this started, Noel would come home from work, we would have an early supper and go for a walk. There’s a beautiful avenue of trees after a small bridge by our house, that we watch change with the seasons. Bathtime with our young daughter was a ceremony of laughter and splashing after which we would do bedtime story routine with our daughter. Then my husband and I would stay up, have a glass of wine or watch a movie together. Our weekends were always packed with family trips or outings in Skåne. We love the nature here. We are picking berries, apples or mushrooms depending on the season. For us, exploring Sweden’s nature together with my little family felt was a healing process from all that we left behind back home.
No doubt, The Boss with his constant calls and requests cut into this. I began to notice that not only was Noel increasingly tired and stressed, but ashamed. He started feeling extremely guilty about not being able to keep promises to his little girl. More often than not, and with increasing frequency, he was home too late. Our daughter would fall asleep on the couch waiting for him to come. But what broke my heart was how she was trying to make him feel better. She would stick band aid plasters on his head, paint his nails, put on charades for him, play his favourite ACDC and 2Cellos, share an ice cream or just hold his head to try and make it better for him. She missed the playful man in her life, the hero, the clown, the one who kissed sunshine into her world.
But as this intensified my health began to suffer. It started with difficulty breathing and cramping in my chest... the doctor confirmed....I would need heart surgery.
Our daughter was just 3 years-old. She didn’t understand how her father was working to keep her safe. But as this intensified my health began to suffer. It started with difficulty breathing and cramping in my chest. Repeated trips the doctor confirmed a blockage in my heart. The Doctor told me point blank: "You have to reduce your stress." In March, I was scheduled for an angioplasty procedure in nearby Malmö.
For the surgery we needed someone to look after our daughter, so Noel needed the day off. He told The Boss about my surgery, and he would approve the day off but only with proof from the doctor. We showed him, and he approved.
On the day of the surgery Noel and our daughter came with me and waited while the doctors prepared everything. Our daughter was concerned, but Noel and I had a plan. I told her I was going to have "a very boring day with the doctors as they help me feel better," and that she had strict orders "to have a good time, so she could tell me all the interesting things she had done, and be sure to hold pappa's hand as he can get lost in big cities." As I went into the surgery Noel took her to the Naval Museum, and Folkets Park.
After the surgery the cardiologist explained to Noel and I that the procedure had not been successful. The problem was more complex than expected, as my condition was worse than they originally thought. My veins were so contracted that they couldn't put in the stent. They would need more time and different equipment. But for now, there was too much scarring in the veins, and the next surgery would be rescheduled. We piled in the car for the drive back, exhausted, and speaking in our "Parent Code" i.e. big words in English and Afrikaans so the little one wouldn't pick up too much.
As we pulled onto the dirt road where our house was we were greeted with a machine, mud, and a trench blocking the car from reaching the driveway. And there, in front of me was the mess, the stress, the trauma, all personified in one man, The Boss. He was digging a trench across the driveway at our house. When Noel stopped the car, he came up to us and said:
“Great, you’re home - you can take over. We’ll be installing fibre optic cable here soon.”
Noel and I sat for a moment, in total shock. My brain started doing flip flops. Our daughter started crying, she needed the toilet. Noel got out of the car to look at the trench. I got out and picked up my daughter. With the drugs wearing off, I felt the bruising along my leg, where they went in for the angioplasty.
I walked over the trench to our house, with my daughter in my arms.
Noel stayed with The Boss, and I went into the house. With the little one safely in the loo, I washed my hands at the kitchen sink, staring somberly out the window at the Horse Chestnut tree. There are times when you just carry on and survive. Noel came back in the house, and looked at me.
He then called out, “Where’s my Bugsy?!” His pet name for our daughter. “We’re getting pizza!”
We learned how to power through days like today, but for how long? None of this was sustainable.
Then, The Boss slammed the palm of his hand onto Noel’s chest, causing Noel to stumble.
At this point, one might be wondering when the complete breaking point is. It happened one night in September of 2016.
We had gotten used to Noel coming home late, tired, and grumpy, but this evening something was really wrong.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“We’ll speak later,” he replied. I made Noel a cup of coffee and put our daughter to bed.
Later, in the living room, I sat with Noel and listened. He is very difficult to follow in this state. He speaks in short sentences. I pieced it together as he got it out.
Apparently, today in the machine hall near the silos, The Boss had handed Noel a list of tasks to be done. Looking at the list, Noel asked what should be done first, and The Boss snapped. He stepped forward, closer to Noel, and while pointing a finger in his face said,
“if you have a problem with any of this than you can just leave!”
Then, The Boss slammed the palm of his hand onto Noel’s chest, causing Noel to stumble. Noel caught his fall, and then braced himself. The Boss took a step towards Noel, nose to nose. But Noel controlled himself. The Boss walked away.
Noel is 2 m tall and 120 kg. Back home during the war, a 19 year-old Noel was going out in the night with a gun, in the bush with nine other soldiers. He’s survived several close contact skirmishes, a landmine explosion, a gunshot wound and being "bossies" (a South African term describing shell shock or PTSD, specific to combat). As not only South Africans, but veterans, we know what violence is. We left all that behind when we moved to Sweden. But, these provocations were becoming too much. Noel was struggling to control himself.
“If I lose it, I might not want to stop.”
There in the living room, we heard our daughter breathe a sob from behind the couch. She had snuck out of her room, and hid behind the couch to listen to us. That was the first time I began to wonder how far we had to be pushed to simply live an ordinary life. Noel had made a promise to me, against all odds, that he will not touch The Boss.
In South Africa we have a term “gatvol,” which means 'very fed up.' That was us.
I called the police the next day.
However, I was told that as this was a labour dispute. The police could do nothing unless an actual assault was reported. Noel phoned MoneyPenny at Kommunal and told her about this. She said that for them to take any action, there would need to be proof. “Just leave him, you don’t need to give notice.” The last thing either of us wanted was any violence, or any trouble with the law.
Job search became top priority for both of us, again. I was met with continuous rejection, again. For Noel, many of the farms would not take him because of who he was working for. It had been confirmed that I would need heart surgery, angioplasty, which I decided to postpone. The recovery would take at least six weeks, and we needed to move, find a new job, and take care of our daughter. I had images in my head of Noel, taking punch after punch, being beaten to a pulp by The Boss, just so we could stay.
If not that, the very real work injuries Noel had already suffered, and which were at best ignored by The Boss. Noel had already injured his leg, on the tractor that needed to be repaired. What if such injuries became more frequent as Noel was sinking into a hole of utter exhaustion. My best friend, my little girl's father and my husband was worth much more. When a letter from the Cardiologist came, scheduling the next surgery for the following month, I delayed it. The recovery alone would be six weeks. We needed a change, fast. I refused to keep living like this.
We packed up our things and started moving stuff into storage. One of our dear Swedish friends opened their home to us. I helped Noel put together his CV. Noel called Migrationsverket and was told he can change employers, as long as he remained in the job description. Because he had an extension application in process, he was to wait until more information was requested.
We were going to get above this if it was the last thing we did. Hell or high water.
Noel had made a short list of places for a new job. Together we drove to each of them, and Noel would go in with a CV in his hand and present himself. Noel looked hardly as confident as our proud, family bear. He looked shattered, exhausted. He wasn't sleeping well anymore. Looking back, with what we knew at the time still makes me scared. We had reached out to everyone we knew, every organization, but we were on our own.
At one place, Agroma, Noel was greeted by a friendly man, Ola who invited him to his office for an interview. After a while he came back to the car with the promise of a phone call. Within less than a week of the initial meeting Noel was offered a job.
At this point MoneyPenny had established regular contact with The Boss, but we had no idea about this. We didn't get really any information from them on what was happening. So between Noel and I we made regular contact and asked many questions as a means to gauge what was happening in a careful balancing act. One day we got a mail from MoneyPenny, apparently The Boss had repeatedly refused to meet with her.
Now, The Boss wanted to talk! He announced that he had arranged for the coveted crop spray certification, the trailer, with faulty brakes, was sent to be fixed. I remember Noel telling me, it felt like The Boss pretended he wasn't leaving. It was bizarre.
But two weeks before his last day in mid October, Noel heard the roar of The Boss' Ferrari while he was in the workshop. The Boss stormed in, waving a paper in Noel’s face:
"I have paid you and it was a lot of money. I had to get money from the bank. Thomas is hunting me. You must make this stop."
Noel was very confused. He didn't know who 'Thomas' was or what this was about. The Boss shouted:
"Make this go away!"
He marched back to the Ferrari and roared off.
Noel tried to call MoneyPenny but couldn't get through, he sent an e-mail. Sure enough, she explained that she had asked help from Kommunal's legal department to force The Boss to attend a meeting. Noel had no idea. He had less than two weeks of work with The Boss, but his mood swings became even more extreme, along with Kommunal's actions.
A week or so later, Noel began his new job. We updated everything with Migrationsverket, and moved into a new house. But, we weren't out of the woods yet.
Little did we know, Kommunal would recommend deporting us, because of The Boss, and we would become asylum seekers.
Elaine is an international professional, Kompetensutvisning Survivor, and Chief Operations Officer for Real People. She wants to share this story, for others going through this to make sure they feel that they’re not alone.
How Difficult Can it Be to Follow that Law? Pt. III: Then the Union Deported us
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