Some Swedish workers came to Bornholm as stonemasons. In 1901, 28 % of all stonemasons were Swedes. Photo: Bornholms Museum.
More than 81,500 Swedes emigrated to Denmark in the late 1800’s to find work especially in agriculture, as servants and in construction works. Some Swedes were additionally employed as seasonal workers.
At the end of the 1800’s, the demand for labour in Denmark increased due, amongst other things, to a number of large construction works, the migration from rural to urban areas and emigration of Danes to other countries. For younger workers from southern Sweden, in particular, Denmark was an attractive labour market. Danish agriculture and industry were more developed than in Sweden and access to the big city of Copenhagen was tempting. Many Swedes therefore immigrated to Denmark from the mid-19th century until around World War I.
The Swedish workers were recruited through newspaper advertisements, by workers who had been in Denmark or through recruiting agents who were either travelling or had offices in Copenhagen and a number of northern German cities. The recruiting agents often had Swedish sub-agents who took care of the recruitment in Sweden.
To avoid exploitation of the Swedish workforce, a Swedish law was passed in 1884, restricting the right to recruit in Sweden to Swedes alone. The workers were sent to Denmark or Northern Germany by ship, often in large groups and often in poor conditions.
THE HARD WORK
The majority of the Swedish immigrants were young men and women from the country. The work that the Swedes performed was often hard and dangerous. A number of them worked in the tile works on Zealand, where a working day of 12-15 hours was common. Others worked as stone masons or as navvies, which levelled off and laid rails for railway construction. From 1888-93, the construction of the fortifications of Copenhagen also provided work for many Swedes.
In agriculture, the Swedes were employed, amongst other things, in the cultivation of sugar beets, which started in Denmark from 1870. . Especially on Lolland and Falster, the introduction of sugar beets gave rise to an increase in the demand for labour, because their cultivation is very labour intensive. From the 1880’s, farmers in Skåne (Southern Sweden) began to grow sugar beets and the Swedish labour in the Danish beet fields was gradually replaced by Eastern European seasonal workers. Some Swedish girls also worked as milkmaids or as maids in the cities. During the 1800’s approximately 1 in 10 maids in Copenhagen were from Sweden.
Most of the workers in, for example, tile works and in agriculture, amongst others, were accommodated in dormitories or similar. The work could be paid for either in cash or partly in kind and partly in accommodation and wages were in some places settled as piecework. It was not uncommon for milk maids to take piecework in the beet fields at times and a number of them returned home to Sweden with some savings.
Since the young workers not were used to receiving their wages in cash, several officials in Sweden at that time expressed their concern about the habits that the young people brought home with them to Sweden in the winter. Some women returned home pregnant, leaving the child with relatives when they themselves returned to Denmark to seek work.
THE SWEDISH INTEGRATION
Many Swedes were seasonal workers who were hired in the summer and returned to Sweden in the winter. The beet girls were, for example, employed from May to November. A number of them stayed in Denmark, however, and were married to Danes. A number of special agreements between Denmark and Sweden in the 1880’s and ’90’s gave Swedish immigrants special rights. Among other things they were given access to poor relief after 12 years in Denmark and Swedish women married to Danes were given easier access to citizenship.