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WORKING IN SWEDEN

EXPLAINED: Sweden’s new work permit law and the ‘seven year rule’

Sweden's new work permit law, which comes into force in June, will allow people to apply for an unlimited number of work permits, and scrap the 'seven-year rule' which has in recent years seen many skilled IT workers in Sweden deported. We explain the change.

EXPLAINED:  Sweden's new work permit law and the 'seven year rule'
Office workers in Sweden. Photo: Simon Paulin/Imagebank Sweden

In a change that was not highlighted when the bill was published last month, from June 1st, those who have already received two two-year work permits in Sweden will be able to apply for a third, fourth, or even more, without having to instead apply for permanent residency. 

At the same time, the so-called “seven-year rule” will cease to apply, meaning that the Migration Agency will no longer look back seven years from the date of application and see if there are any issues with prior work permits. 

“The abolishment of the limit on permits is very much welcomed and will solve part of the problem with talent deportations,” the immigration lawyer Pia Lind told The Local. “In my opinion, it would not have been possible without those who made their voices heard regarding talent deportations.”

Lind estimates that fully a third of her cases relate to the seven-year rule, meaning the change will make an enormous difference. 

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

What was the work permit limit and why was it a problem? 

Under the current rules, it is only possible to extend a two-year work permit to a maximum of four years, or six years under “special circumstances”. 

Many IT consultants recruited from India and other non-EU countries are granted two-year work permits to come to Sweden for time-limited projects. Very often the projects are delayed, meaning the work permit holder arrives later than planned, and they quite frequently end up finishing the project earlier than planned and long before the two-year work permit expires. An IT consultant might then be used for another project, for which they secure a two-year extension to their original two-year work permit.

The problem comes at the end of that four-year period.

Under the current rules, a further two-year extension to a work permit can only be granted if there are “special circumstances”, or särskilda skäl. Otherwise, if you have had a work permit for four out of the preceding seven years, the Migration Agency will instead automatically assess whether you are eligible for permanent residency. 

It’s worth noting that an application for an extension can be rejected if you have entered Sweden and started working later than four months after the permit was granted. 
 
Employers also often forget to cancel work permits if a project ends earlier than expected and the work permit holder leaves Sweden, which can cause trouble later on. 

The permanent residency Catch 22 

To be granted permanent residency, however, the consultant needs to demonstrate a “strong connection to the Swedish labour market”, not only over the preceding two-year work permit period, but also under previous permits going back seven years.

If they have spent less than three years working out of four years with a work permit in Sweden they are likely to be rejected. 

According to Lind, the number of cases where this happens has been rising. 

“The Migration Agency and the courts have been increasingly strict when it comes to assessing if special reasons to extend an application are at hand,” she said. “It’s not enough to prove that the applicant now is employed in Sweden and that she/he couldn’t prevail over the limited time spent in Sweden during the first period with a work permit.” 

When the Migration Agency makes it’s assessment, it’s the total time in Sweden that is considered, so all the time spent outside of Sweden during the first permit and the second permit will be counted together when the agency reviews whether requirements for permanent residency are fulfilled.  

The ghosts of past permits

One other problem with the seven-year rule is that when the Migration Agency is considering an application for a work permit extension, the agency does not just assess how well the employee and employer adhered to the terms of the previous work permit, but also to those of any work permits granted in the preceding seven years. 

“I think all lawyers that work on these issues have struggled with the fact that there’s case history, with previous problems that have existed previously, and there’s nothing you can do. I mean, you can’t correct the missing insurance from four years back, right, and it can still haunt you.” 

A long wait outside Sweden before you get a reset 

The third big problem with the seven-year rule has been that if you end up having to leave Sweden and reapply, under the current rules, you sometimes have to wait years before you are eligible. 

Until recently, the Migration Agency tended to see only a few months spent outside the European Union as long enough away to allow a new fresh work permit application. 
 
“When I first started working, if you had problems with your work permit and could not be granted an extension, you could go away for six months, and then you could apply for a new permit, and the old history of your permit was erased,” Lind says.
 
This had no basis in law, but it was the common practice. 
 
However, in recent years, a series of court rulings have changed the way the law is applied so that even if the applicant has left Sweden, any work permits they have received over the preceding seven years will still be considered when assessing their most recent application. 
 
Once they return to their home country they are now not eligible for a new work permit until the first work permit was granted more than seven years ago. It could be years before they can be granted a new work permit,” Lind says. “In my opinion completely unacceptable and in conflict with the intention of the law.” 

So what will the situation be after the new rules come in on June 1st? 

It will remain the case that to be eligible for permanent residency, an applicant needs to have had four years of work permits over the preceding seven years. 

What will be different is that it is no longer obligatory to apply for permanent residency after four years of holding work permits. It is now possible to instead apply for additional two-year work permits.  

If you have broken the terms of your work permit, by, for instance, not receiving the correct insurance or by being paid too little, this will still cause problems with getting it extended. 

“An overall assessment will still be made for the permit that you’ve had, and you may still get a rejection,” Lind says. “But the big difference is that by leaving Sweden and applying for a new permit after the problem permit has expired, you can start afresh and that history will never come back.” 

In addition, if you then get a work permit for two years and extend it to four years, you can then apply for permanent residency without the mistakes made in the first work permit leading to your application being rejected.  

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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.” 

READ ALSO: 

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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