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'.
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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.”