The browser you are using is not supported by this website. All versions of Internet Explorer are no longer supported, either by us or Microsoft (read more here:

Please use a modern browser to fully experience our website, such as the newest versions of Edge, Chrome, Firefox or Safari etc.

Rasmus Ahlstrand has defended his thesis on the changing Swedish building sector

Portrait Rasmus Ahlstrand outside of Sociologen in Lund. Photo: Emma Lord.

In his doctoral thesis in sociology "Structures of subcontracting: Work organisation, control, and labour in the Swedish building sector", Rasmus Ahlstrand analyses the increased use of subcontractors and explores new forms of work organisation in the Swedish building sector. A key contribution of his study is the concept of masked staffing, which refers to unauthorised ways of organising labour through subcontractors.

By claiming that they externalise work to subcontractors, companies mask the fact that they hire labour on principles of staffing, which implies that companies sidestep employer responsibility while at the same time maintaining control of the labour process.

While construction rates are the highest they have been for 50 years, the sector is undergoing a structural transformation as large parts of production are externalised to subcontractors. Such practices of externalisation builds on the balance between price and quality. However, this balance is increasingly shifting in favour of price. As a result of the availability of cheap labour from other parts of the EU, both main and subcontractors see financial advantages with subcontracting arrangements that build on price only, regardless of the quality and credibility of the subcontractor in question.

In Structures of subcontracting, Rasmus Ahlstrand argues that the current subcontracting regime of construction management is restructuring the organisational architecture in the Swedish building sector. Such a structural transformation challenges not only the traditional image of the Swedish building sector branded with high-quality production and high-productivity, but also the international outlook of the Swedish labour market as characterised by job-quality, high educational levels, and workers’ influence on the labour process.

Today, Friday 11 February at 10 o'clock, Rasmus Ahlstrand successfully defended his doctoral thesis "Structures of subcontracting: Work organisation, control, and labour in the Swedish building sector". Around 40 people gathered for the dissertation defence in the Eden Auditorium in Lund, and up to 30 people followed the defence live via a webinar in Zoom.

Discussant was Professor Paul Stewart from Grenoble Ecole de Managment in France.

Main Supervisor and Chairperson of the defence was Associate Professor Sara Eldén from The Department of Sociology, Lund University.

Supervisor: Christopher Mathieu, The Department of Sociology, Lund University.

Examination committee:

  • Professor Janine Leschke, Copenhagen Business School
  • Associate Professor Annika Vänje, Dalarna University
  • Associate Professor Charalambos Demetriou, Department of Sociology, Lund University

Find the doctoral thesis via Rasmus Ahlstrand’s personal page in Lund University Research Portal.

Dissertation Abstract:

The organisation of work in the Swedish building sector is changing due to increased subcontracting and the adoption of construction management. In this study, construction management refers to a specific subcontracting regime, in which contractors externalise all parts of the production process and organise work through subcontractors. Echoing global trends of cost-cutting, this externalisation between Swedish contractors and subcontractors attempts to achieve organisational flexibility by reducing the number of directly employed craftsmen. Such trends have accelerated in the past two decades as a result of the expansion of the EU-single market and the inclusion of new member states from mainly Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) in 2004 and 2007.

This study builds upon theories of the sociology of work and sets out to analyse the current subcontracting regime of construction management from a labour process perspective.

Based on a case study research design with interviews and visits to construction sites, the organisation of work in two building companies is analysed with the aim of exploring various manifestations of organisational change visible through dis-integrated organisational structures contingent on subcontracting.

The analysis shows that contractors and subcontractors engage in a variety of contractual agreements structured around a balancing of price, quality, and acquaintance; but that the access to cheap labour in the EU-labour market incentivises firms to engage to a further extent in contractual agreements based on price than in previous practice.

A key finding in this thesis is the use of masked staffing in the organisation of work. Masked staffing is a novel and previously unconceptualised form of subcontracting, which elaborates on how subcontracting arrangements reliant upon external business relations with trade-specialists build on principles of staffing rather than those of actual subcontracting. Rather than the externalisation of managerial control over labour, which is the case in different forms of subcontracting, direct control over labour remains with the general contractor in masked staffing. Consequently, I demonstrate that rather than subcontractors, firms contracted on principles of masked staffing act simply as unauthorised staffing agencies involved in the brokering of (cheap) labour.

To conclude, this thesis shows how the current subcontracting regime of construction management restructures the organisational architectonic of work in the Swedish building sector. Such restructuring is indicative of the plethora of possibilities for contractors and subcontractors alike, in terms of both shifting costs and responsibilities; moreover, it reveals tensions and contradictions in the labour process, including the changing character of contemporary construction work.

Rasmus Ahlstrand and Professor Paul Stewart discuss the doctoral thesis.
Rasmus Ahlstrand and Professor Paul Stewart discuss the doctoral thesis.
Rasmus Ahlstrand and Professor Paul Stewart discuss the doctoral thesis.