Work and Living Conditions

Photo: A Malmström

At the time when the Woodland Cemetery was being planned, society was in flux. Sweden’s union with Norway had been dissolved. Liberal movements and taxation reforms were happening as well as labour union unrest, general strikes and the struggle for the women’s vote. Impact from the first world war was seen in closed borders, rationing and hunger riots.

Migrant Labour and “Work for Fine Folk”

Seasonal work and domestic migrant workers were common from the 18th century onward. Most renowned were the treks by poor rural families from the province of Dalarna to “the fat cats” in Stockholm. The treks took place in spring and autumn, sometimes in large groups accompanied by musicians, and sleeping in barns, haystacks or forests.

Some were specialist carpenters, bricklayers and masons, but many, even women, took unskilled jobs on building sites and in cemeteries.

Public Works

‘Crown Work’ authorities and workhouses existed in Sweden as early as the 19th century. In 1914, a state public works commission was set up to offset expected unemployment during the first world war and also to test the willingness to work.

Public works jobs were means-tested, prioritising men with families to support and structured not to compete with the private market. Women often worked without pay. A famous public works project for women was the subsidised knitting cooperative in Bohus province for the families of stonecutters in need.

In 1922 unemployment for men was at 34%. Thirty-two thousand were given jobs in forestry, ditch-digging, cable-laying, roadworks and bridge-building. It was hard manual labour with spades, pickaxes and wheelbarrows and accommodation was in barracks, often far from home.

In 1922 a factory worker earned about SEK 2,000 a year, and an indentured worker about SEK 600. Public works jobs paid at most 75% of the lowest wage for indentured or unskilled workers — below subsistence level. Low wages were meant to motivate workers to gravitate to the private sector. Anyone who turned down a public works job was refused public assistance. In the Great Depression of the 1930s public works projects were launched with slightly improved wages and conditions.

Living Conditions

There was a major shortage of housing in Stockholm and other cities. The cost of living increased by 180% from 1914 to 1920, and subsidies were legislated for poor families.

Conditions were grim even during the 1930s and ’40s. Employers were free to hire and fire as long as proper notice was given. If a job was not done satisfactorily, pay could be docked by 15%. Time-off was allowed for voting and after 10 years, a day labourer was entitled to a maximum of 15 days’ holiday.

The Woodland Cemetery 100 years

Skogskyrkogården, The Woodland Cemetery, celebrates its 100th anniversary with a new outdoor exhibition. September 19—November 1, 2020. Free admission.

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