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WORKING IN SWEDEN

How could a new skills shortage test for work permits impact foreigners in Sweden?

Sweden's government has announced their intention to introduce a skills shortage test for work permits, which would mean work permits would only be awarded to those applying for a position in a sector where there is a national shortage. How could this impact foreigners?

How could a new skills shortage test for work permits impact foreigners in Sweden?
Healthcare workers are likely to be featured as an approved profession under a possible shortage list system. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

What is the shortage test?

The shortage test, known as arbetsmarknadsprövning in Swedish, is a system where prospective labour migrants wanting to work in Sweden will only have their work permits approved if they are filling a position where there is a national shortage.

Sweden has had this system before. It was scrapped in 2008 by the then-Moderate government led by Fredrik Reinfeldt, a move which migration minister Anders Ygeman said had caused issues in Sweden, such as extensive labour immigration for low-qualified jobs for which there is no shortage of labour nationally.

“Deregulation has led to serious consequences for the country,” Ygeman said at a press conference on Thursday, going on to say that there “have been many warning signals over the years”.

Who will be affected?

Firstly, this would mainly affect people who are not currently working in Sweden and applying for their first work permit in the country.

The law would only affect non-EU, non-Nordic people wishing to work in Sweden. EU and Nordic citizens have the right to live and work in Sweden without having to apply for a work permit.

It’s hard to say at this stage which professions would be affected, but a look at Denmark’s version of the system, the “positive list”, may provide some insight.

Denmark’s list for those with a higher education includes architects, healthcare professionals, teachers and programmers, and their list for skilled workers includes laboratory technicians, chefs, electricians, social and healthcare assistants and hairdressers.

It’s unclear how the law could be applied to those who are already working in the country, but it could mean that you run into issues when it’s time to renew – although, it should be stressed that any change in law is unlikely to happen for at least a year and a half, if it happens at all.

READ ALSO: How will the new work permit law just passed in Sweden affect foreigners?

What do Sweden’s political parties say about the shortage test?

Unsurprisingly seeing as they scrapped it last time they were in government, the Moderates are still against the shortage test. 

The Centre Party, Liberals and Green Party are also against reintroducing the shortage test, arguing that employers are better placed to decide whether they have a labour shortage than government authorities.

The Christian Democrats, Sweden Democrats and Left Party are backing the Social Democrats, with all three in favour of reintroducing the shortage test, but for different reasons.

The Left Party argues that it will prevent the exploitation of foreign workers, whereas the Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats believe it should be introduced for all positions with a salary of less than 35,000 kronor per month, with no shortage requirement on positions with a higher salary.

When will it be introduced?

It may not be introduced at all. So far, the government have said that they plan to investigate the reintroduction of arbetsmarknadsprövning, but the investigation won’t start until the summer, after which it is expected to take at least a year.

That means that any change in law is unlikely to happen before the second half of 2023, making the return of the test reliant on the Social Democrats winning September’s election.

If the opposition parties were to win September’s election, it is even less likely that this law would be introduced. A more likely scenario in that case would be the introduction of a lower salary cap on work permits, meaning that applicants would have to secure a salary above a certain limit before they can be granted a permit.

It’s unclear what this salary would be, although the Moderates have previously argued it should be at least 85 percent of Sweden’s median salary, which would place the limit at aroung 27,500 kronor a month.

The Sweden Democrats and Christian Democrats are in favour of a higher cap, which would require prospective immigrants to earn at least 35,000 kronor to work in Sweden.

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WORK PERMITS

INTERVIEW: Are Sweden’s liberals ready to fight for work permits?

Sweden's liberal work permit system is under assault from the Social Democrats, but Tove Hovemyr from the liberal Fores think tank is worried liberal right-wing parties have lost the appetite to fight back.

INTERVIEW: Are Sweden's liberals ready to fight for work permits?

For Tove Hovemyr, public policy expert at the liberal think tank Fores, the employer-led immigration law Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Alliance government brought in back in 2008 marks the high watershed of Sweden’s formerly enlightened approach to migration. 

“Sweden became the most liberal labour migration system in all of the OECD countries,” she tells The Local’s Paul O’Mahony in this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast.  “And this has been very successful and great, most of all for Sweden’s growth and labour market situation, but also for our competitiveness in the globalised world that we live in.” 

The 2008 law scrapped Sweden’s old system of arbetsmarknadsprövning, Sweden’s version of the so-called “labour market test”  where the unions and the government would assess which were the roles, professions and industries where Sweden had a shortage of skilled workers.

“It basically says that if someone has offered you a job in Sweden with a wage that is adequate, and that also follows Swedish labour market regulations and so forth, then you were welcome to come from a third country to Sweden and work,” she explains of the 2008 law. “It was not dependent on whether there was a shortage of workers in a sector or industry. And this is still the law that exists in Sweden.” 

However, this liberal law, which has enabled so many people to come and build their lives in Sweden, is now under threat from both left and right. 

Changes to work permit laws which come into force on June 1st already make work permits harder to secure, requiring applicants already to have a signed contract before applying for a work permit, and also to prove that they can support any family they bring. 

But at the end of April, the Social Democrats announced plans to reverse the Reinfeldt reforms and bring back the labour test, while the Moderate Party wants to limit work permits to those on salaries of 27,000 kronor a year. 

“What we can see now is that both the Social Democratic Party and the Moderate Party now want to restrict Sweden’s liberal labour migration regulations in different ways,” Hovemyr says. 

The Social Democrats’ proposal would return Sweden to the pre-Reinfeldt past, while the Moderates’ proposed threshold, she argues, would mean drastic reductions in labour migration. 

“A lot of the labour migration that we have today, and which we also need, like berry pickers, people at restaurants and hotel workers, would not measure up to this level,” she says of the Moderates’ threshold. 

She sees the push to tighten up labour migration laws as part of the broader anti-migration backlash that began in Sweden in the 1990s but which really took off with the refugee crisis of 2015. 

“The refugee crisis of 2015 shook most policymakers to the core,” Hovemyr says. “Even the most liberal politicians were suddenly in favour of a more restrictive policy, some due to new personal convictions, and some due to the public attitudes towards migration. From a more pragmatic point of view, it is now very hard to be pro-immigration in Sweden.” 

Partly, she concedes, this reflects a toughening of attitudes across the world.

“We’ve seen a fast increase in right-wing populism and nationalism all over the liberal democracies. This is not a development isolated to Sweden, quite the opposite. Sweden is actually not the worst in class.” she argues. “This is a part of a wave of  populism going all over the western countries, and the immigration debate in Sweden is just a part of it.” 

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Hovemyr believes the next battle will be over labour migration. 

“Besides the question of asylum policy, one of the biggest fights we will see, I think, in the years after this election, will be labour migration policy,” she says. “Just as the general attitude in the public policy debate is that it’s hard to be pro-migration, it is also hard to be pro labour migration.” 

Her fear is that there seem to be few politicians ready to fight for the liberal labour migration that she believes has brought Sweden so many benefits. 

“What concerns me is that when these proposals came from the Social Democrats in late April, I didn’t see the defensive reaction from politicians who support liberal labour migration policy that I would have expected,” she says. 

“This is concerning, because I think that many still sees being pro-migration as something dangerous, and it might mean that the fight to keep liberal labour migration laws won’t be as great as I would hope.”

Tove Hovemyr was interviewed by Paul O’Mahony for this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast. 

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