How Swedish attitudes to labour migration are changing

How Swedish attitudes to labour migration are changing
Many of The Local's readers moved to Sweden on a work permit. File photo: Melker Dahlstrand/
The number of people who moved to Sweden for work in 2018 was higher than in any other year since more generous rules were introduced in 2008, and Swedish attitudes towards labour migration appear to be increasingly positive.

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More than 20,000 new work permits were issued during the year, a record high since the 2008 law changes. Work permits are required for non-EU citizens who do not have any existing residence permit, for example on family grounds or after being granted asylum. 

“During the past decade, there has been a gradual liberalization of the labour migration policies in Sweden, and several parties have also argued for the positive effects of increased labour migration,” explained Elina Lindgren, the SOM Institute political scientist who carried out the survey, in an email to The Local. “My aim was to see whether these trends are also reflected in the attitudes of the Swedish public.”

Before 2008, the Swedish Employment Agency and unions carried out assessments of labour shortages which determined how many work permits could be granted in a given year. But the centre-right Alliance and Green Party changed this system, so that it now falls to employers to determine whether they need foreign workers to fill jobs, and anyone can move to Sweden for work if they have a job offer that meets certain minimum conditions.

This has led to a gradual increase in labour migrants, although levels of labour migration remain low compared to the OECD average, noted the study by Gothenburg University's SOM Institute, a centre which researches society, public opinion and media.

Another change over the past decade is that an increasing proportion of labour migrants carry out highly-qualified jobs; this category applies to more than half of all labour migrants.


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Younger respondents were more likely to have a positive attitude to labour migration. Photo: Susanne Walström/

According to Lindgren, “the increased public support for labour migration in recent years compared to the early 2000s (2002) follows the political development in Sweden, where we have had several reforms lately that simplify [the process] for people outside of the EU/EFTA to come to Sweden and work”.

She said that one difference has been the fact that political parties have increasingly called for labour policies to be liberalized due to the shortage of labour in Sweden, particularly because of high levels of retirement in the public sector.

The survey showed however that there was still some resistance to labour migration, with 19 percent of respondents saying it would be 'very bad' to increase labour migration, 18 percent saying it would be 'quite bad' and 37 percent 'neither good nor bad'. Only 26 percent believed it would be a good thing.

But this was an increase from 2002, when almost half (49 percent) said increased labour migration would be a bad thing, and just 15 percent were positive towards it. Those figures changed to 41 and 22 percent respectively by 2013, and since then have remained relatively steady, with between 25 and 30 percent saying more labour migration would be a good thing, in the years 2014-2018.

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The study by the SOM Institute found that younger people (aged between 16 and 29) were more likely to have a positive view of increased labour migration (36 percent, or ten points above the average). Other groups which were more positive than average were highly educated individuals (of which 37 percent said it would be a good thing, compared to just 18 percent of those with lower levels of education) and those who supported the Left Party, Green Party, Centre Party and/or Liberal Party.

At the other end of the scale, people in the over-50 age category, with a lower level of education, and supporters of the Sweden Democrats, Moderate Party, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were less likely to be positive towards labour migration.

There was also a link between negative attitudes towards labour migration and other views, particularly “individuals who worry about the economy, and who make a negative assessment of how the welfare institutions function”, Lindgren said.

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