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Sweden’s Social Democrats propose limiting work permits to jobs with skills shortages

The leadership committee of Sweden's Social Democrats has proposed tightening the rules around work permits, so they are only given to immigrants from outside the EU if they have skills or professions that are in short supply.

Sweden's Social Democrats propose limiting work permits to jobs with skills shortages
People from Thailand will probably not be able to come and pick berries in Sweden if the proposal becomes law. Photo: TT

Magdalena Andersson, the favourite to take over as party leader at the party’s conference at the start of November, said at a press conference that it was “completely unreasonable” for Sweden to currently be importing thousands of unskilled workers for the hotel and restaurant sectors, when so many in the sector were temporarily laid off due to the coronavirus crisis. 

“Why is that? You have to suspect that it’s because those who are coming in to work aren’t going be working in great conditions, and that the employers want workers who are completely dependent on them,” she said.

With the proposal, the party is effectively calling to bring back the arbetsmarknadsprövningen or “labour market test”, which companies needed to meet to recruit workers internationally until it was abolished by the government of Fredrik Reinfeldt in 2007. Currently, in order to receive a work permit the requirements are to have an offer of a job in Sweden, which must have been advertised in Sweden and the EU and must offer a salary of at least 13,000 kronor monthly and in line with either collective agreements or the standard for the industry.

In Fördelningspolitik för jämlikhet och rättvisa, or “Redistributive policy for equality and justice”, a policy paper released in May, Andersson and five other prominent Social Democrats pointed out that only about half of the 21,000 people who received work permits in 2019 were highly skilled workers, with the rest in jobs requiring no or few qualifications such as carpenters, cooks, care assistants, caretakers, and berry pickers. 

“If the labour market tests shows that there is not enough labour in Sweden, then it should be possible to have labour migration,” Andersson said at the press conference. “There are 200,000 people in Sweden who are long-term unemployed, so there’s a resource to draw on.” 

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The party also wants all those who receive work permits to be employed under union-agreed wage agreements, and to be given full-time jobs, whereas currently part-time work is also acceptable.

The proposals are part of a long list of new policies around work and unemployment which will be voted on by members at November’s party congress in Gothenburg, before becoming part of the party’s manifesto in the run-up to next year’s general election. 

This means there is a long way to go before they could become reality, but it does signal a shift in Social Democrat labour policy.

Rafiqul Islam, who leads the Work Permit Holders’ Association, which represents those living in Sweden on work permits, warned that the new policies, if they became law, risked making life even more difficult, both for those wanting to come to Sweden and for those already living in the country.

“Many people who come to Sweden, who don’t yet speak English, enter the job market through these kinds of industries, and they might now find if they get a new job they will not get their work permit renewed,” he said. 

He said it was also rare for labour migrants with few qualifications to to be given full-time jobs on arrival in Sweden. 

“That’s also a big problem, because in my experience, very few companies offer full-time work in the beginning.” 

In its package of labour market proposals, the party also proposed toughening regulation of jobs in the so-called ‘gig economy’, allowing people to offset more of the cost of unemployment insurance against tax, and making Swedish lessons compulsory for those with poor language skills who are receiving unemployment benefit. 

Member comments

  1. Limiting work permits to those with skills in certain professions seems like a sensible recommendation, depending on the actual implementation.
    What do others think?

    1. I think that clear definitions need to be made of what is meant by skills and skilled workers. In the article above, carpenters and cooks are apparently among those jobs “requiring no or few qualifications”, which puzzles me. A good carpenter is a skilled craftsman, often starting with a full apprenticeship.

      As for cooks, many specialised restaurants like Thai or Vietnamese or Lebanese etc need skilled cooks from their respective country. There are of course good and bad cooks, but a really good cook is highly qualified with several years’ training and experience. A large kitchen will contain many different skills – meat, fish, sauces, desserts, plus various specialities.

      To say that carpenters and cooks require no or few qualifications does not bode well, and is not a good start to solving the problem.

  2. For many years my company worked with Migrationsverket and Arbetsförmedlingen training unskilled immigrants (and the occasional Swede) with basic computer skills, and giving them entry level work at our company. After a few months of this, most of them were able to get better paying jobs other places, in part because they had that vital piece of information, a sincere letter of recommendation by a Swedish employer — which we only wrote about people whom we sincerely thought would be good hires. This was almost all of them. And the ones we did not recommend were almost never panned because of lack of skills. It was almost always a matter of character – being dishonest, being the first to blame others for your own mistakes, in one case being a petty thief.

    So I think the notion that immigrant unemployment is driven by too many unskilled immigrants is false narrative. While it is definitely worth looking at to see if immigrant labour is depressing wages, which would otherwise be rising for the working class, I don’t think the ‘those horrible unskilled immigrants are stealing the jobs away from us’ tells the real story, either. A lot of these unskilled are the small business entrepreneurs who are creating new jobs and new wealth with their new businesses. You want to encourage them, not lock them out.

    1. Hi Laura,
      Nice note. So what are you recommending with this? You seem to be suggesting that Sweden should admit more unskilled workers? If so, how should this work? Should numbers be capped at some level? What numbers sound right to you?
      Thanks,
      J.

      1. It’s not about ‘more’ or ‘less’. It’s a non-fix for the non-problem. I think that Sweden is about the easiest country in the world to go out and get skills, should you want them. Opportunities for training, both formal and on-the-job sort abound. Thus ‘lack of skills’ is the part of the unemployment problem that is easiest to fix, and indeed there is a lot of fixing already happening. I also think there are good jobs in the restaurant and hotel industry, and the notion that this proposed legislation is to protect the immigrants — by making these jobs unavailable to them — is a cynical a bit of political posturing. Bash the immigrants for their own good! You can pander to the anti-immigrant elements in your own party and feel virtuous about what you are doing at the same time.

        1. Hi Laura,

          Thanks for responding. Interesting thoughts.

          But there is an incongruence here. Immigration has largely been touted as a path to remedy skill shortages in Sweden and in almost all western nations. And nations such as Sweden and others “marketed” higher immigration rates to their citizenry to “fill a skills gap” by targeting and admitting highly trained and skilled immigrants to perform niche specific jobs (e.g. computer science, medical research). That was the broad pitch.

          Now, it seems you are suggesting that Sweden (and by extension probably other western nations in similar circumstances) should admit immigrants without marketable skills, and then train them. Just admit them. And train them later. And if all else fails – they can get low paid restaurant jobs. It seems a bit contradictory vs. the original pitch for higher immigration.

          And may I ask: If following your suggestion, where would it stop? What limits should be applied to throttle immigration rates versus opening the doors to everyone from everywhere? Or, are you advocating such an open door policy? This takes me back to the my previous comment where I suggest you seem to be advocating for the admission of “more” unskilled workers. Is this not the natural conclusion to draw from your comments and the approach you seem to be advocating?

          Thanks,
          Steve

  3. Also — if you want to go after those employers in the hotel and restaurant sector who “want workers who are completely dependent on them” and where ” those who are coming in to work aren’t going be working in great conditions” — then you do things to limit worker dependence, and assess fines to the places that aren’t treating their workers properly. You don’t decide that the thing to do is to stop those in the hotel and restaurant sectors who are providing good jobs from hiring immigrants who want them.

  4. It is just a political narrative. People who are long term unemployed in Sweden are just because they don’t want to work. Because sometimes you get the same amount in your hand after working or if you are unemployed. So mostly people choose to stay home and take the benefits instead of working.

  5. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for responding. Interesting thoughts.

    But there is an incongruence here. Immigration has largely been touted as a path to remedy skill shortages in Sweden and in almost all western nations. And nations such as Sweden and others “marketed” higher immigration rates to their citizenry to “fill a skills gap” by targeting and admitting highly trained and skilled immigrants to perform niche specific jobs (e.g. computer science, medical research). That was the broad pitch.

    Now, it seems you are suggesting that Sweden (and by extension probably other western nations in similar circumstances) should admit immigrants without marketable skills, and then train them. Just admit them. And train them later. And if all else fails – they can get low paid restaurant jobs. It seems a bit contradictory vs. the original pitch for higher immigration.

    And may I ask: If following your suggestion, where would it stop? What limits should be applied to throttle immigration rates versus opening the doors to everyone from everywhere? Or, are you advocating such an open door policy? This takes me back to the my previous comment where I suggest you seem to be advocating for the admission of “more” unskilled workers. Is this not the natural conclusion to draw from your comments and the approach you seem to be advocating?

    Thanks

    1. I think that you should accept immigrants who have a job promised for them, and not exclude them because somebody made a list and said ‘carpenters are unskilled, as are chefs and waiters, so these are undesirable people’. (There is actually a shortage of carpenters where I live, but it isn’t considered unskilled either.) Accepting unskilled people to come and here study, who then take employment here is working out rather well in the nursing sector. I don’t know how it is working out other places.

      Clearly accepting a hoard of people who will never work, and never integrate into society, and have no intention of ever doing so is a bad idea. But I don’t think you should let these people hide behind the ‘it’s because I have no skills’ excuse, because that usually isn’t the problem. ‘Because I cannot speak Swedish’ may indeed be a particular skill shortage they face, but requiring Swedish language proficiency before somebody is allowed into the country seems a lot to ask.

      1. Here’s an analogy. Let us say that you are unhappy about long term unemployment among immigrants. And you decide that the thing to do is to change the rules so that immigrants who happen to be under 160 cm tall are not allowed into the country. People might immediately catch on to the fact that the height of the immigrant is not the factor that is producing the long term unemployment. In the same way, immigrants who have jobs, or have been promised jobs, however unskilled are not the problem either. But they will do the suffering if this policy comes to pass.

  6. Nice conversation with no shaming. Unemployment benefits were cut in many states, but the hospitality industry ( restaurants, retail shops, etc) still have trouble finding workers because many un skilled workers got skills training during the pandemic and got higher paying jobs in other industry’s. Here in the US carpenters are definitely considered skilled!! The pandemic ripped open the pay and benefits gap in the fast food business, and those workers woke up to the fact with a few months skills training or apprenticeships in plumbing, electrical, welding, etc jobs they could move up the skills ladder to a better economic future. The glaring need in the US for foreign unskilled labor is farm workers. The anti immigrant sentiment here makes it difficult to raise legal immigration slots to fill the hundreds of thousands of jobs farmers are begging to be filled without resorting to undocumented immigrants. Images of tens of thousands of people massing on our southern border could be ameliorated if our politicians had the courage to raise legal immigration rates. One million foreign residents are allowed to legally enter yearly. Opening half a million more slots and funding many more immigration officers in Central and South American US consulates would ease the burden on our southern border, and it would be politically palatable because very few Americans want to do the grueling back braking work on farms even if the wages were 20$/hr. Living in Sweden in 1988 I picked strawberries to make some cash until my Swedish language skills improved enough to get a job at a SAAB factory. I really enjoyed my year and half in Sweden, and it truly opened my eyes as to how tough farm work is with low pay.

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IMMIGRATION

One year on: How Sweden’s new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives

In July last year, Sweden's new migration law tightened residency rules for PhD students, sending the future plans of thousands into disarray. The SACO union spoke to three of them about how their lives had been changed.

One year on: How Sweden's new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives

Chen, 31, from China.

PhD on non-pesticide methods to reduce insect damage in newly-planted forests.

Chen, who came to Sweden from China in 2017 to study a the Swedish Agricultural University, says that she has felt trapped in Sweden since defending her thesis in November, as the Migration Agency does not normally allow those applying for a residency permit to travel 

“I feel like I’m under house arrest,” she complains. “I haven’t been able to take a vacation outside Sweden since my permanent residency application is pending, and I can’t go back to China to visit my family for the same reason — two years since the first Covid outbreak at the beginning of 2020.” 

Now the exemption from residency permit requirements for PhD students has been removed, PhD students generally need to get a job as soon as they graduate to show that they can support themselves, but Chen says she was so deeply engaged in her studies that it was near-impossible to send off job or research applications. 

“There are many days I woke up at 8am and left my office at midnight,” she remembers. “I ate for only one meal during the day in order to finish my thesis in time. I could barely spare any time to look for jobs or send job applications even though I knew I had to get a job offer for at least two years to get a positive decision on my permanent residency application. “

“After my defence, there was no time to celebrate my achievement but I instead started to search for jobs immediately.”

Before the change in the rules, Chen had planned to look for post doctoral studies in another European country, but the new rules makes that difficult. 

“My plan was to do a one or two year postdoc in another country to strengthen my competence and then come back to Sweden,” she said. It is rather common to do a postdoc in a new country and then come back to the PhD country for a more stable academic position,” she said. “By doing so we could broaden our vision, establish collaboration and bring back new insights.

“When we got permanent residency, returning to Sweden was easier, without having to go through all the energy-consuming stuff, like getting a job offer and applying for a work permit, getting a personal number, Swedish ID, bank account, Bank-ID and insurance.” 

She believes that the Swedish government should acknowledge that the impact of the new alien act on PhD students is a mistake and take steps to reverse the changes.

“Do not be afraid to admit that you made wrong decision, be open-minded and listen to different voices,” she tells the Swedish authorities. “There are ways to fix the mess and regain people’s trust.”

Now she’s considering whether to carry on seeking work and waiting for the Migration Agency to take its decision, or whether to take her expertise to another country, probably The Netherlands or Germany. 

“The way to regain my freedom is either to get a job that fulfils the new requirement or to leave Sweden to build my life and career somewhere else.” 

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Melissa, from Australia. Photo: private

Melissa, 36, Australia

PhD on riparian ecosystem science

“It’s brought a big, dark shadow of insecurity into mine and my partners’ long term plans,” says Melissa, who decided to do her PhD in Sweden partly because her partner is Swedish, and partly because she knew she would be “a better researcher and scientist” if she spent time researching in another country. 

When she arrived, she wasn’t necessarily planning to continue her research in Sweden, but as she began to realise she perhaps wanted to, the change in the law came in, making it more difficult. 

“Turns out, I really like it here and I like the research environment! I do want to stay in Sweden to pursue a career here. I knew that an academic career was already very unpredictable but I had hoped that after finishing my PhD I could continue branching out from the research I’ve been doing in boreal forests in the form of postdoctoral positions with some of the Swedish researchers I really admire.”

That is now all looking more and more unlikely. 

“It’s almost like there’s this atmosphere of uncertainty that’s with me when I think about life after my PhD,” she says. “It’s already stressful to think about what I will do when I finish my doctoral studies, but adding in the stress of possibly not being able to stay in Sweden is massively draining, especially when the Aliens Act seems to ignore, or not care to consider, the realities of an academic career.”

She believes that the Swedish government should at least adapt the Aliens Act to reflect what she calls “the realities of academic careers”. 

“It is virtually unheard of for a young researcher to gain a position that fulfils the support requirements for 18 months and by not adjusting the Aliens Act to account for this you are discouraging really talented and passionate young researchers from coming.”

Although she wasn’t set on staying in Sweden for the long term when she started her PhD, she’s finding the new barrier to residency is putting her off, pushing her to consider positions in Australia or the US. 

“I’m more hesitant about pursuing an academic career in Sweden because the added feeling of ‘temporary-ness’ in everything I do,” she says. “It even just manifests itself in little things like abandoning our plans to get a dog, buy a house, or have a more long term career goal in Sweden because permanency isn’t so much of an option anymore.” 

Tuser Biswas, from Bangladesh, is researching textiles at Borås Högskola. Photo: private

Tuser Biswas, 34, Bangladesh 

PhD on sustainably printing biological materials onto textiles which can fight bacteria and viruses

Tuser Biswas has also  had his plans to work as a postdoc outside Sweden thrown into chaos by the new law, which came out four months after he’d applied for permanent residency. 

After I finish my PhD in Sweden, I would like to go work somewhere else as a postdoc. When I started my PhD, I knew that if I want to go somewhere else, I could always come back to Sweden (and I probably would) but know I am not sure what I would do,” he says. 

Also, like Chen, he has been stuck in Sweden as a result of the law. 

“I’ve had to cancel attending conferences and still can’t plan work related trips outside Sweden. My family is very stressed for not being able to travel to home country for a long time now.”

He says that the change in labour laws has changed his views on Sweden. 

“The total political environment is getting unfriendly for international mobility. I came to live in an open-minded society, but it seems like a mirage now.” 

He believes that the government should better tailor its migration laws to fit researchers. 

“Don’t make a ‘one size fits all’ type law. The working conditions for PhD researchers and other employees are not the same. How can you judge them all under the same law?”. 

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