Who are Sweden’s leaders of diversity? New award set to celebrate employers

Can a new award for Swedish employers help turn a new leaf after the so-called 'talent deportations' in recent years? That's what one non-profit organisation for foreign professionals hopes.

Who are Sweden's leaders of diversity? New award set to celebrate employers
The Local is a media partner of the 'Leaders of Diversity' award. Photo: Pixabay

Sweden's job market has received sharp criticism from many international workers in recent years, not least because of kompetensutvisning ('talent deportation'), which saw hundreds of work permit renewal applicants rejected over often minor errors by their employers – sometimes honest mistakes, other times made by non-serious employers.

A survey published last year by the Diversify Foundation, a non-partisan organisation for foreign talent, aimed to get a comprehensive view of the problem, with more than 80 percent of respondents saying their family's health had been affected, and the majority would not recommend Sweden to fellow foreign professionals hoping to work there.

But several stories of employers defined as great by respondents also emerged.

The survey included an optional question for deportation-threatened employees, asking respondents if they wanted to nominated those employers for an award.

More than 65 organisations were nominated.


“I think success stories are needed, not only for work permits, but for Sweden and talent in general. Diversity is a growing concept for many employers, but this award shows what it looks like in real life, from the pioneers already doing it,” Matthew Kriteman, chief operations officer at the Diversify Foundation, tells The Local.

That's why he and his colleagues decided to launch an award, 'Leaders of Diversity', meant to highlight those employers, managers and companies that have shown leadership and helped their foreign employees.

“While our survey results were designed to acknowledge and empower foreign workers doing it right, but affected by kompetensutvisning, this award is designed to do the same for serious employers,” says Kriteman.

“Nominees only come via our survey from a person facing potential deportation, there is no self-nomination as in many other employer awards.”

American Peter Lincoln, co-owner of Brewing Költur, who was deported in 2019. Photo: Private

The event, held at the venue Fabriken in southern Stockholm, is itself meant to be a celebration of diversity, says Kriteman. The food will be provided by Sopköket, an organisation that focuses on sustainable food but also gives newcomers to Sweden a foot on to the Swedish job market. The beer comes from Brewing Költur, a micro-brewery run by an American entrepreneur whose work permit was denied last year.

“We have inspirational speakers and a panel from all types of backgrounds and perspectives, including from Serendipity, Invest Stockholm, Scania, and others. Maybe I'm naive, but I still believe in the Swedish funky, innovative, liberal concept of Swedish solidarity,” says Kriteman.

The nominees will be anonymously judged by an evaluation committee consisting of representatives from different fields, including those affected by 'talent deportation', who will pick the winner.

One of the award nominees is Cool Company, an invoicing service for freelancers.

“For us, it's an honour to be nominated for this award and raise awareness on this issue. A colleague was affected a while ago and had to leave Sweden for a year before we got him back. It's a top priority for us at Cool Company that everyone who works here is treated the same, no matter if you're a Swedish citizen or not,” says Jonny Simonsson, CFO of Cool Company, in a press statement.

What is talent deportation?

Kompetensutvisning or 'talent deportation' has been a hotly debated topic in recent years, none the least here at The Local. In fact, it was so heavily debated that in 2017 it was adopted as an official new word by The Swedish Language Council in its yearly 'new word' list.

Kriteman knows, he has “survived kompetensutvisning“, as he puts it himself, twice. It was then that he was introduced to Ali Omumi, an Iranian engineer also facing deportation at the time due to work permit issues, whose situation got a lot of traction in news and social media.


Ali Omumi was eventually able to return to Sweden on a new work permit. Photo: Private

A couple of court judgments in 2017, the so-called 'Lucia rulings' (because they were announced around the time of Swedish holiday Lucia in mid-December) were hailed as progress for work permit holders when they ruled that decisions by the Migration Agency should be made based on an “overall assessment”, so that a minor mistake in an otherwise solid application would not lead to deportation.

The decisions led to fewer rejections of work permit holders, but did not appear to fully put an end to talent deportation, which prompted the Diversify Foundation to investigate what an “overall assessment” and the Lucia rulings actually meant.

“I was in touch with Rafiqul Islam, general secretary for the Work Permit Holders Assocation, regarding my own case. He's been volunteering on this issue after working his normal job for over three years. He introduced me to Ali Omumi, who had the same issues with missing insurances as I did. Both Ali and I were awaiting appeal in the courts after being denied and deported,” explains Kriteman.

“But we got very different results. When Ali was denied an appeal, after the Lucia rulings, we launched the survey to collect individual-level data from the end-user of the migration system, foreign workers. For example we later learned the difference with me and Ali was in part because he was missing insurance for more that six months, and I was on leave of absence on an international assignment.”

So what has the response from Sweden been?

“I have yet to meet someone who is 'pro-kompetensutvisning', at least personally. I would say the response to our work is usually very positive. But sometimes there is just silence,” says Kriteman.

He speaks about talent deportation as part of a larger issue with confusion and fears of migration as the economy changes.

“The fourth industrial revolution requires new technology, new skills needed to achieve it, new demographics that these skills bring, and global competition. I think sometimes people are worried or simply don't know what to say.”

He maintains that there is a lot of consensus on the issue, which he sees when talking to politicians, businesses, institutions, and employers as well as workers.

“Everyone from all sides pretty much agrees: This is bad, this isn't how we do things in Sweden, it should stop, but foreign workers should not be abused.”


The number of work permit renewal rejections has gone down since 2017, as The Local has previously reported. Kriteman thinks that things are getting better, but says that diversity and foreign recruitment still are relatively new concepts in Sweden.

“While we are still monitoring several cases, the deportations at least for now have gone down. The official investigation into this issue has been launched by the government. I think everyone who's been affected by this deserves a party – serious employers, foreign talent, anyone who wants to be part of celebrating positive examples of labour migration done right, and helping Sweden. Everyone is welcome. This is a chance for everyone to celebrate employers that are not only serious but leaders of diversity.”

The Leaders of Diversity Award is a non-political charity event, all proceeds go to the event. The Local will be writing about the event for our readers, as a media partner. The event will take place on August 28th (new date) at Fabriken in Stockholm. Read more here.

Per Clingweld, chairman of Diversify, and Matt Kriteman. Photo: Diversify Foundation

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EXPLAINED: Why is it taking so long to get work permits in Sweden?

The Migration Agency is currently taking much longer than its target to process work applications for foreigners employed by so-called "certified operators". What's going on and when will the situation return to normal?

EXPLAINED: Why is it taking so long to get work permits in Sweden?

How long are work permits taking at the moment? 

The Migration Agency told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in a recent article that in the first half of September the average work permit decision for those who have been hired by so-called certified operators — basically a fast-track for big and trustworthy companies — had taken an average of 105 days, while under its agreement with these companies, it is supposed to take only ten. 

The agency told The Local that this number, though correct, was misleading as the number and timing of applications varies so much from month to month, which is why it prefers to take an average over a longer period. 

According to tables provided to The Local by the agency, it has so far this year taken an average of 46 days to handle a first-time application for a work permit by an employee who has been hired by a company that is part of the certified operator scheme. This is nearly three times as along as the average of 19 days it took in 2021. 

Work permit extensions for employees at certified companies have taken 108 days so far this year, up from 43 days in 2021. 

First time work permit applications outside the certified employer scheme have taken 121 days so far this year, which is actually less than the 139 days it took in 2021. Extensions outside the scheme have so far this year taken an average of 327 days, up from 277 in 2021. 

According to the calculator on the Migration Agency’s website, 75 percent of first work permit applications for people in industries that are not considered high risk are currently completed within three months, and 75 percent of work permit extensions are completed within 14 months. 

For first-time work permit applicants who have been given jobs by or through a certified company, the agency also estimates that 75 percent of applications are processed “within three months”. 

What’s the problem? 

According to Fredrik Bengtsson, the agency’s director for Southern Sweden, who is also responsible for processing work permits, the agency has received far more applications in 2022 than it had predicted at the start of the year. 

“So far this year we have already received 10,000 more applications than our prognosis,” he told The Local. 

New rules which came into force on June 1st have also significantly increased the workload, particularly a new requirement that those applying for work permits already have a signed contract with their future employer. 

“That meant that tens of thousands of ongoing cases needed to be completed,” Bengtsson said.  

The new law also meant that instead of simply having to simply meet a minimum income requirement to bring over spouses and children, work permit applicants also needed to prove that they could support them and supply adequate housing. 

“With the new law, we need to do a much more fundamental analysis of the employee [‘s financial situation], if they want to bring their family,” he added. 

Although the agency has reduced the number of its employees from around 9,000 immediately after the 2015 refugee crisis to about 5,000 today, Bengtsson said this was something decided on by Sweden’s government in the annual budget, and was not directly linked to the current staff shortages, or to the pandemic as some have reported. 

Wrong-footed by war in Ukraine 

While the agency had been aware of these changes in advance, warned about them in its responses to a government white paper, and recruited more staff in anticipation, Bengtsson said that that the war in Ukraine had diverted resources, meaning that at the time the new law came into effect in June, the work permit division lacked sufficient staff to handle the additional workload. 

What is the agency planning to do? 

The agency is still recruiting and moving more staff to the division processing work permits.

It is also increasing the use of digitalisation, or automated systems, to process work permit applications, although there are limits under the law meaning that parts of a work permit decision still need to be made by case officers. 

The new requirement to assess applicants’ ability to support their families has made digitalisation more complicated, Bengtsson said: “As soon as we need to make judgements, we can’t digitalise”. 

He stressed that the agency was still managing to process work permits within the four-month time limit given to it under law. The ten-day goal was just “a service we offer companies”, he added, and was not something the agency was mandated to achieve. 

“We are working full out to bring down the processing time again, but it is possible that we won’t be able to return to the processing times that we had before,” he said. “We may have to say, we can only do it in a month, but we will have to see how it is with the new laws for a few more months, and then we’ll take a decision.” 

In the longer term, Bengtsson predicted that if the labour market test or a much higher minimum salary for work permit applicants is brought in, as seems likely in the coming years, this would speed up processing times. 

“There will be fewer applicants, and it will be easier for those big companies hiring people with a higher education level to get work permit,” he said.