Beyond berry pickers and coders: Sweden’s overlooked migrant workers

With Sweden’s immigration debates focusing mainly on lucrative tech startups, exploited berry pickers, and an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers, migrant workers in the middle ground are grappling with their own problems but struggling to get their voices heard.

Beyond berry pickers and coders: Sweden’s overlooked migrant workers
Photos: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

In Rinkeby on the outskirts of Stockholm, Jovana Ciric carries, dribbles and blocks for a living. Life as a professional basketball player has given the 33-year-old Serbian an insight into labour conditions in Cyprus, Greece, Bosnia and the Czech Republic. 

But when basketball club Akropol in 2014 offered her one of its few contracts reserved for non-European Union players, she decided to take the leap and move to Sweden, a country whose reputation as a strong welfare state with a chilled-out populace appealed to her. 

Ciric says she “felt at home right away” at the new club, but nevertheless, she wishes Sweden would loosen some of its labour regulations. 

Jovana Ciric. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

Each year more than 3,000 foreign athletes, lecturers, au-pairs, researchers, and performers make their way to Sweden for work.

Together they help make Sweden’s labour market one of the world’s most diverse. Since 2010, workers representing more than 160 countries and 170 professions have moved to the country for their jobs.    

But newcomers often face the kinds of restrictions locals never have to worry about. For instance, professional athletes from outside the EU are permitted to work only for the club that signs them. 

“I’ve got the time to do other work, but not the opportunity,” said Ciric at a discussion forum hosted by MIG Talks, a communications arm of the Swedish Migration Agency designed to give migrants a greater voice. 

“I’m not allowed to have an extra income, which is a pity because then I’d be able to meet people, form networks, and feel more involved in society. Women in sport have lower wages than men and many of us would like to have an extra job where we can socialize and make new contacts,” added Ciric. 

She also argued that Sweden would benefit financially from her paying more taxes. 

But the rules state that whether you’re an employee, athlete or visiting lecturer from a non-EU country, for the first two years your work permit is strictly tied to the specific employer that recruited you. If the permit is then extended, it remains limited to a single occupation for a further two years.

“It has been argued that a work permit holder who gains a side-income from a second employer wouldn’t cause any harm to either of the two employers, and that the regulation is too rigid,” said Fredrik Martinsson, a legal expert at the Swedish Migration Agency. “But this is a political question, and any changes need to happen at a political level.”

Eight years have now passed since Sweden ditched one of the world’s most restrictive frameworks for immigrant workers and replaced it with one of the most liberal. Before 2008, Sweden’s Public Employment Agency set a quota for non-EU economic migrants based on its assessment of the country’s labour needs.

The 2008 labour migration law flipped this old order on its head: economic migrants were now welcome to come to Sweden if they could find an employer. The intention behind the reform was to create a 'demand-led' system in order to ease labour shortage in certain occupations and sectors.

But despite this dramatic overhaul, the increase in labour migration has not been as extensive as could have been expected. The number of migrants who move to Sweden for work remains fairly low, with a few exceptions in certain occupational groups.

What’s more, surprisingly little research has been carried out to measure what the change has meant for Sweden – or for the people who have moved here to work.

Lisa Söderlindh, head of MIG Talks, said that detailed research in this area “would be useful in order to understand some of the gaps in the current system, and to cast light on how labour migration contributes to Swedish society.”

“The latter is a topic many of the workers participating in MIG Talks have raised as a missing aspect in public debate,” Söderlindh added.

In the years since the 2008 reform, reports on economic migration in the Swedish press have tended to focus on two extremes: the plight of seasonal berry pickers in northern Sweden, many of whom have fallen into the hands of exploitative employers; and, at the big-money end of the scale, a burgeoning startup scene that has provided fertile ground for immigrant entrepreneurs and tech workers, the numbers of which have increased in recent years. 

Meanwhile, workers who do not fall into either of these camps slipped even further off the media radar last year when Sweden took in unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers. 

The Swedish Migration Agency found itself swamped. Workers waiting for residency permits were suddenly vying for attention with 160,000 people fleeing war, poverty and persecution. 

Marcia Paniagua, a domestic services worker from El Salvador, is one of many who have had to wait a long time for paperwork to be processed. 

Marcia Paniagua. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

Despite paying tax since 2012, she has received conflicting information from the Swedish Tax Agency as to whether she can be issued with a personal identification number, which is crucial for getting on in Sweden.

“All the focus now is on asylum seekers. Those of us who are here for other reasons are forgotten,” she told participants in the MIG Talks discussion at the Nordic Museum. 

Hers is a recurring complaint among migrant workers, many of whom sympathize with refugees but worry that their own cases risk getting lost in the backlog. 

The average waiting time for a decision on an initial work permit application has increased from 40 days in 2015 to 49 days in 2016, while the decision on applications for permit extensions has gone from 95 days to 121 days.

Canadian violinist Wonnie Lee fared better. After a three-year stint in Berlin, she upped sticks for Sweden in 2014 when the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra offered her a job. Things quickly fell into place for her: she loves the city, her job, and her fellow musicians, whose warm welcome made her feel at home.

Wonnie Lee. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

“I don’t hear much about my type of migration but I get the impression that it’s viewed quite positively,” she said. 

“A company has decided it’s you they want – so you’re seen as someone who has been chosen, rather than as an intruder.” 

She is especially grateful to her employer for doing everything possible to help with all the paperwork involved when moving to a new country. 

“I personally haven’t had any negative experiences of coming here to work. My colleagues think it’s fun to have new people, and almost all the latest jobs in the orchestra have gone to people outside Sweden. 

However, Yusak Susilo, a lecturer from Indonesia, said universities in other countries where he had worked — such as Japan, the Netherlands and the UK — were better equipped to assist foreign academics in navigating the local bureaucracy.

Yusak Susilo. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

“There were help desks where foreign employees and students could ask questions and get advice. Something similar would be good in Sweden,” he said.

“This would prevent well-educated employees and students from having to run back and forth to different agencies. Better coordination would save time for civil servants and migrants alike.”

Markus Filipsson, a process manager at the Swedish Migration Agency, agrees. “It would be relevant and appropriate for universities to offer a support function,” he said.

“We are aware of the range of agencies and organizations involved in the application process, and the risk of conflicting messages and delays owing to the different information flows.”

Filipsson explained that the Swedish Migration Agency is active in the Forum for Internationalization – a body created in late 2008 by the Ministry of Education with the aim of removing obstacles to internationalization of higher education in Sweden.

“The notion of a ‘one-stop shop’ for information has been touched upon in this forum,” said Filipsson. “The applicants – and all those involved in the process – would benefit from the information being better coordinated.”

Sweden has a widening skills gap, and it needs migrant workers to fill it. It’s an attractive destination, for sure, but recruitment experts fear that growth could be stifled by factors including an acute housing shortage in the biggest cities, and processing delays that could put people off.

“Addressing the challenges and opportunities related to labour migration is not a number equation which can be easily solved,” Lisa Söderlindh noted. “Rather, the question is how we can put a spotlight on the real experiences of those who have migrated to Sweden for work and for other reasons.

“Their views and concerns must help shape the actions, solutions and discussions around labour migration.”

Deepak Kamboj. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

Deepak Kamboj, an IT-expert from India, believes that Sweden should cherish the mutual benefits of migration, and look at what can be done to make it easier for labour migrants to establish themselves here. 

“We live in a digital world – almost everyone today can connect across borders and work for whomever they wish. The labour market will only get more internationalized. It is high time that we accept and adapt to this changed reality, and cherish it,” said Kamboj.

For more information about MIG Talks, see its website and Facebook page.


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‘History will record how everyone reacted to the Syrian tragedy’

Erik, a 21-year-old Swedish volunteer, reflects on his experience helping refugees in Sweden and abroad.

'History will record how everyone reacted to the Syrian tragedy'
Photo: Erik Gerhardsson

Opening or shutting doors. Defending or discrediting refugees. Caring for or turning our backs on vulnerable people fleeing Syria’s cruel war. All is going to be written down, believes Erik Gerhardsson, a 21-year-old Swedish volunteer.

“Syria’s war is intricate and I think history will record how we, individuals or groups, reacted to this tragedy,” he says.

Gerhardsson wants his own entry in this still-being-written saga to be a positive one, even if his efforts only amounted to a very small detail in the perplexing tumult of the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Here’s what he had to tell us, in his own words.


I completed high school at the start of the refugee influx. I’d been working and saving money but didn’t have any real commitments. And I had always wanted to volunteer and help.

So in September 2015 when I saw that refugees were suffering from the long journey across Europe, and agonizing in the very same spots where I used to go on holiday, I couldn’t not react. I had to do something.

The first thing I did is donate ‎€500 of my own savings; I started offering what I had on hand. Then a friend of mine who was volunteering with a Swedish humanitarian organization told me that people were in need for blankets in Hungary.

I could mobilize people in our municipality to collect blankets for refugees – and so that’s what we did.

But that wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to be more involved.

Heading to Hungary

It was obvious that many people were not doing anything to help. And then came calls for the borders to be closed. I and three friends of mine took a different stance. We managed to raise ‎€3,000 in donations from family, friends, and people in our hometown that allowed us fly to Hungary to aid refugees en route to Austria in September 2015.   

Trains carrying 1,500 people transported refugees closer to Austrian borders every hour. Nonetheless, refugees still had to walk for two to three hours to reach the closest Austrian customs checkpoint. It was a tough journey on foot. 

So, we decided to walk part of the way with the refugees and did our best to offer them what they needed along the way. We gave them information to guide them throughout their march to their final destinations.

We offered water, food, and helped carry their kids or bags. Many of them were about to faint from the journey since they had already suffered through harsh conditions before arriving in Hungary.

Helping closer to home

In October we were back in Sweden and found many refugees were arriving to our hometown of Ingarp, part of Eksjö municipality in Småland in southern Sweden.

Here again, my friends and I created a small initiative called Medmänniskor Hjälper to prop up newcomers among us.

Locals in our town donated clothes and other household items that we later distributed to newcomers. We organized more activities such as sports and movie nights. Refugees needed a warm welcome.

Next stop: Greece

The scenes from Lesbos in Greece saddened me indeed. I still can’t get the terrible images out of my head showing hundreds of people sleeping on the ground without a roof.

It was December 2015 when I saw countless refugees shivering in despair in the freezing winter on that island. There weren’t enough places in camps to shelter everyone. I joined a group of volunteers at the notorious camp Moria on Lesbos. A few months later, in March 2016, I joined volunteers with another Greek NGO called Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI).

It was very frustrating as we wanted to share the burden with others, but it felt like we really weren’t able to help much at all.

However, we helped as many families as we could among those suffering most from the freezing temperatures. They were cold, wet, and soaked to their bones. We gave them clothes and hot food, and a small taste of relief.

Heart-breaking moments

In 2016, hundreds of refugees were still arriving to the Greek shores. In March I moved to Lesbos and joined ERCI there also to patrol the coastline and help refugees who might struggle to make it ashore in the rough and unpredictable seas. We basically worked as lifeguards, spotting boats and helping prevent people from drowning.

Throughout the time of my volunteering I came across both hopeful and heart-breaking moments. Some boats arrived with everyone healthy and alive and smiles on their faces; others arrived with people crying and moaning out of fear, or from losing their loved ones.

One time a boat arrived with two corpses aboard. That shocked me. However, there wasn’t time to think much; only to act, and that’s what usually happens in such moments. My colleagues and I pushed the bodies off the boat and continued to help the other lucky ones who survived.

Emotional recovery usually came during rare moments of rest, and talking to each other helped us volunteers ‘heal’ and get over the trauma. Spending the day aiding people and making sure I could stand by every refugee that needed my help was actually the best medicine against emotional deterioration.

A message to Swedes and other Europeans

I’m always ready to go anywhere; wherever there are people on the run in need of help. I think it’s a shame most European countries have shut their borders in the faces of refugees.

Just ask yourselves how you would react if you were in these refugees’ situation! How would you like to be treated? Would you favour being shunned and rejected by other capable societies? I don’t think so.

European states are using resources to deploy soldiers, tighten borders, install walls and fences, and use tear gas, rather than using those resources to help vulnerable fellow humans.   

A message to refugees of the Syrian war

You need to know that despite all the misery in your lives, there are lots of great people out there doing their best to help.

We hear you and feel your pain. I know it feels like the whole world has failed to end your suffering, but I hope that you hear me and know that I’m standing by you, and that you are not alone.