Games producer told to leave Sweden over former employer’s error

One of Sweden's largest game developers is calling on the government to freeze deportations of work permit holders as one of its key staff members faces the threat of having to leave the country over a former employer's error.

Games producer told to leave Sweden over former employer's error
Vachon Pugh is a games producer for Swedish tech giant Paradox Interactive. Photo: Private

For Vachon Pugh, moving to Sweden had always been a dream. And while Sweden's growing tech scene has been working hard to attract international talent, it was first and foremost the love for the country itself that brought the experienced games producer here – first to southern city Malmö, then to Stockholm and Paradox Interactive, where she landed her dream job overseeing the production of the Hearts of Iron IV game.

But her life and career were thrown into turmoil last month when a letter from the Migration Agency arrived, informing her that her work permit extension had been rejected and she had four weeks to leave Sweden.

“I was very surprised and panicked. I contacted my manager and I was completely freaking out,” Pugh tells The Local. “I knew it was a risk that it could happen, because when we applied for renewal they asked for additional information, but I thought we had taken care of it and done everything we needed to do.”

Pugh, 38, has been employed by three companies, including Paradox, since moving to Sweden from Florida almost three years ago. The Migration Agency found no fault with either her first or current employment – but her second employer failed to pay out a number of workplace and pension insurances during her trial period.

In 2015, Swedish laws were tightened to stop the exploitation of foreign workers. But as The Local has previously reported, it also led to the deportation of hundreds of work permit holders working for serious employers over often minor administrative errors. The situation has shown signs of improvement, but the phenomenon is so ubiquitous it has given rise to a new word, kompetensutvisning or 'talent deportation'.

The tough rules mean that the requirements for non-EU employees are in reality often higher than for EU citizens, and they face harsher punishments when they are not met. Pugh was the first international worker her previous company had employed, and it had been set to start paying out the workplace insurances as soon as the trial period ended. It has since changed its routines so that they take effect immediately. 

“I don't believe that my previous employer had ill intentions, it was an oversight. I understand that the rules are there to stop people from being exploited, but I wasn't exploited, it was an accident,” says Pugh.

Legislation passed in 2017 means that work permit extensions should not be rejected if action was taken to correct a mistake before it was pointed out by the Migration Agency. And judgments from the Migration Court of Appeal have set a precedent that decisions should be based on an overall assessment of factors (or helhetsbedömning), meaning that one minor mistake should not derail an otherwise good application.

But Pugh's situation still does not meet the requirements, according to the Migration Agency.

The rejection letter, seen by The Local, states that the mistakes were not rectified until the agency pointed them out, and that “a period of approximately five and a half months of lost insurances, during a period of two years of permits, is long enough to find that the conditions for your previous work permit were not met”.

A spokesperson for the Migration Agency told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, which first wrote about Pugh's case, that rulings by the Migration Court of Appeal including on the practice of 'overall assessment' did not “give (them) the possibility to ignore all the mistakes committed by the employer”.

Pugh is now appealing the decision to the Migration Court with the help of a lawyer paid for by Paradox.

“It's really good to know that your employer is fighting for you, but I'm stressed, to say the least,” she says.

“It's scary and I don't know what's going to happen. I keep staring at my stuff, wondering if I'm going to have to pack it? I have two cats that I adopted from a shelter in Malmö, and I'm worried about what's going to happen to them. Also, it's in the middle of a pandemic.”

Paradox Interactive CEO Ebba Ljungerud. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Paradox is one of Sweden's largest games producers, with more than 400 employees. For CEO Ebba Ljungerud, choosing to back Pugh was not a hard decision.

“It's a personal tragedy, and it's a big loss for us. Vachon develops one of our most popular games. It's a difficult game to develop, and it's a very hard role to find senior people for. We as an employer are also a victim of this. Even if we're not at fault, and Vachon is not at fault, it still affects us,” she tells The Local.

Sweden relies on foreign workers to plug skills shortages in the country, including the fast-growing tech sector, and a government inquiry is currently looking into addressing the problems of deportations. But the inquiry is not set to present its proposals until next year, and Ljungerud is calling on Sweden to act now.

“I wish they would freeze these deportations until they have been properly reevaluated. This problem has been talked about for years, everyone seems to agree that it is not the intent of the law,” she says.

“Sweden as a country is trying to build our tech industry and that means we are trying to attract people from abroad. This reduces their willingness to move to Sweden for obvious reasons,” Ljungerud adds.

“It's incredibly unfair and outrageous.”

Member comments

  1. “ In 2015, Swedish laws were tightened to stop the exploitation of foreign workers. But as The Local has previously reported, it also led to the deportation of hundreds of work permit holders working for serious employers over often minor administrative errors.” It doesn’t sound like the laws are doing what they were intended to do here. The worker has not been protected and neither is her current (law abiding) employer. Why are they being punished for someone else’s mistake?

  2. Swedish Government must follow the law. I’m sorry for this woman but rules is rules, for goodness sakes.

  3. “I understand that the rules are there to stop people from being exploited, but I wasn’t exploited, it was an accident,” says Pugh.

    Even if she were being exploited, why should the person being exploited be punished, rather than the person/company doing the exploiting?

  4. @claptonfan: “Swedish Government must follow the law. I’m sorry for this woman but rules is rules, for goodness sakes.”

    It’s not someone else’s rules that the government “must follow”. The Swedish government MAKES the rules. And BAD rules should be changed!

    I ask you, claptonfan, if the government suddenly made a rule requiring that YOU be deported to another country, would you just passively say, “OK. I go… because ‘rules is rules’.”? I seriously doubt it.

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EXPLAINED: What do we know about Sweden’s new work permit bill?

Sweden's parliament has voted through a new bill empowering the government to increase the minimum salary for a work permit. This is what we know so far.

EXPLAINED: What do we know about Sweden's new work permit bill?

What is the new bill and where does it come from? 

The new bill, called “A higher subsistence requirement for labour migrants” (Ett höjt försörjningskrav för arbetskraftsinvandrare), was formally proposed by the former Social Democrat government on September 6th after discussions in the social insurance committee. 

The Social Democrat government on February 6th appointed the judge Anita Linder to carry out an inquiry into “improved labour migration”, which was then sent out for consultation and discussed in the parliament’s social affairs committee, before the government submitted the proposal to parliament. 

What does the bill say? 

The bill empowers the government to raise the maintenance requirement for work permit applicants from outside the EU, the Nordic countries and Switzerland above the current 13,000 kronor a month. 

The bill does not specifically state how much higher the maintenance requirement should be, or propose a date for when the changes should come into force.

In the proposal, it states that the new law can be implemented on “the day the government decides”. The new threshold, meanwhile, is to be set by a government directive which is supposed to be issued at the same time the law comes into force. 

How high is the new maintenance threshold likely to be? 

It’s not yet clear. However, the government may choose to follow the Tidö Agreement through which the far-right Sweden Democrats and the three government parties (the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals) agreed to back Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson as prime minister. 

In this agreement the parties agreed to set the minimum salary for work permits to be awarded at the median salary in Sweden, which is about 33,000 kronor a month.

This is a compromise between the 35,000 kronor minimum salary put forward by the Sweden Democrats and the Christian Democrats, and the proposals from the Moderates and Social Democrats, who wanted to set the rate at 85 percent of the median salary (about 27,540 a month) and the Social Democrats, who have floated a minimum salary of about 27,000 kronor. 

In an interview with Radio Sweden on December 3rd, Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard stated that the 33,000 kronor a month limit was not yet set, and that the government would “look into the exact amount”. She also stated that the government “will also be able to make exceptions for some individual professional groups,” although she did not go into detail on which groups this would include.

The Centre Party and the Liberal Party were both against the proposal in the run-up to September’s general election, arguing that Sweden’s existing liberal labour migration laws have been economically beneficial.

The Liberals are likely to respect the Tidö Agreement now they are part of the government. 

 READ ALSO: How do Sweden’s political parties want to reform work permits?

Who is against raising the salary threshold? 

The Centre Party has been the biggest opponent in parliament, arguing that the hotel, restaurant and retail industries in particular will struggle to find staff if they are not able to hire workers internationally. 

Martin Ådahl, the party’s economics and business spokesperson, told The Local his party was opposed on both practical and principled grounds to the proposal.

“It is clear in practical terms that many businesses rely on persons from abroad that have qualifications which lead to more growth and jobs in Sweden,” he said. “This is dependent on people starting with reasonable wages because they are new and don’t speak the language. It’s a loss for both Sweden and the individuals.” 

But he said the party’s liberal ideology also made supporting the proposal impossible. 

“On principle, it is wrong that authorities and boards staffed by public officials should tell businesses which talents they should hire at what wages,” he said. “This kind of wage regulation and minimum wages is something Sweden is opposed to otherwise.”

A lot of criticism has also come from business. Ann Öberg, the chief executive of Almega, a trade body representing businesses in the IT, telecoms, engineering, architecture, media, private healthcare, train operations, and security industries, wrote an opinion piece in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper at the end of October criticising the move. 

She argued that it was unrealistic to expect unemployed people already living in Sweden to fill the gap created when low-skilled labour migrants can no longer come to the country. 

READ ALSO: Swedish businesses attack work permit threshold

This article was originally published in November 2022 and updated following Malmer Stenergard’s comments in December 2022.