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INTERVIEW: ‘Work permit law is a turning point for talent deportations’

Ali Omumi, the Iranian engineer whose work permit struggles helped bring Sweden's talent deportations to attention, tells The Local how optimistic he is that Sweden's new work permit law will help solve the problem.

INTERVIEW: 'Work permit law is a turning point for talent deportations'
Ali Omumi 's case has helped raise awareness of talent deportations. Photo: Centrum för Rättvisa

“The changes are so promising,” Omumi says. “What we see right now, finally, is an intention to stop kompetensutvisningar [talent deportations], something we didn’t see in previous years. Now, we see they are taking action.”

Omumi currently works as Area Sales Manager for Hitachi Energy Sweden at the same time as running Real People, a campaign group for a fairer work environment in Sweden. 

One of the changes he thinks will make the biggest difference is the end to the so-called ‘seven-year rule’, which empowers the Migration Agency to consider employers’ and employees’ adherence to the terms of prior work permits going back as far as seven years. 

READ ALSO: Sweden’s new work permit law and the ‘seven-year rule

It’s a rule that has dogged Omumi’s own work permit cases, both back in 2018 and again two and a half months ago. 

“The Migration Agency is allowed to investigate going back in time up to seven years, and if there is any mistake, like in my own case, I had one insurance missing, and it was not fixable retrospectively, they will reject an extension.” 

“Just two and a half months ago, I received a letter from Migrationsverket, applying the seven-year rule, so they investigated my history of immigration, and they found the same mistake again. I was going to get a negative decision again for the same thing, you call it in English, ‘double jeopardy’.”
When the new work permit law comes into force on June 1st, however, the Migration Agency is supposed to take a forward-looking approach, Omumi says, with more of an emphasis on the terms of the job during the work permit period, and less emphasis on past permits. 
The new work permit law also includes language specifically targeting talent deportations, stating that a work permit extension should not be denied as a consequence of “minor errors”, or “if the denial does not seem proportionate given the general circumstances”. 
Here Omumi agrees with those who worry that this clause still leaves too much up to the Migration Agency’s interpretation. 
“This is a matter of how a case officer at the Migration Agency is going to implement it or quantify it, because we don’t know, for example, if lacking a certain insurance for maybe six months is minor, but more than six months is not, so there are a lot of question marks.” 
Perhaps surprisingly, Omumi is not too worried about the Swedish government’s new plan to bring back the skills shortage test for work permits, meaning that employers would need to show that hires from overseas were in a profession, or had skills, lacking in Sweden. 
“If you already have the expertise and the competencies in the country, there is no point in bringing people from abroad. It’s a bad decision economically to let everyone in, of course,” he says. 
In the long run, tightening up work permit requirements will reduce opposition to labour migration, he predicts. 
“I think it’s going to remedy the damaged reputation, maybe not in the short term, but in the long term, because these changes sound very promising.”

The timing of Omumi’s current case means that he risks not benefiting from the rule coming in on June 1st. 

“At the end of February, we got a letter saying this is not a decision, but you have not fulfilled the criteria to either get a permanent residence or another extension, therefore you will be deported,” he says.

“They asked us to provide more arguments or more documentation supporting our application, so what my lawyers did, knowing that the law was going to change, they asked for an extension, and so we are given until 19th of May, which is only a few days until the new law comes into effect, so my lawyers are going to get another two weeks.”

“I am very much hopeful. I think I’m going to stay.

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How has the Migration Agency been applying Sweden’s new labour law?

Just two weeks after Sweden's new work permit laws came in, problems are already arising, José Vaz, an immigration specialist at Ernst & Young, has told The Local.

How has the Migration Agency been applying Sweden's new labour law?

“It’s only been less than two weeks, but we’ve already seen ridiculous requests from the Migration Agency,” he said.

Wet ink signatures

One of the biggest headaches Vaz reports is that case officers have been demanding that the employment contracts work permit applicants now need to submit are signed by hand. 

“Now that you need to submit an employment contract, they’re actually saying that these need to be hand-signed with a wet signature,” he reports. “This is illegal from a Swedish law perspective, because you can’t mandate employment contracts to be signed by hand. Digital signatures, or even verbal agreements, are legally viable.” 

But when Vaz’s team has made this point, the case officers have not backed down. 

“Their response was, ‘we don’t have the technology to verify digital signatures’, so we have actually escalated that to their legal department.” 

In an interview with The Local at the start of this month, Carl Bexelius, the Migration Agency’s Head of Legal Affairs, said that there were “no formal requirements” for what a signature on the contract should look like, adding that he thought this would end up being decided through “interpretations from the courts”.a

But Vaz reports that in the absence of clear guidance from the agency’s legal team, case officers are demanding so-called ‘wet’ handwritten signatures, which are time-consuming and difficult for many applicants to obtain. 

“This stems from the fact that the legal department just hasn’t provided any guidance to the case officers on how they are to interpret the new legislation, which is then leading to these sorts of ridiculous requests,” he says. 

Bexelius’ approach was causing major headaches for companies, he continued. 

“This is basically the Migration Agency saying, ‘well, we don’t know, we’re gonna let the courts decide’. But in the courts, you are talking about 12 to 15-month processing times, and that’s just not sustainable for companies and for employees who are trying to get their permits extended.” 

Secondment contracts ‘need to meet Swedish requirements’

The second big issue is that case officers are demanding that employees in multinational firms seconded to Sweden have contracts that meet Swedish requirements, even though they signed their contracts elsewhere. 

“With those who are posted or seconded from abroad, they’re saying that the assignment agreements need to be on par with the Swedish agreements,” Vaz reports. “Actually, each person’s home employment contract is dictated by the legislation in their country.”

This just isn’t how big companies work, he argues. 

“They’re now saying that agreements need to match the Swedish equivalent, which is OK, but then you haven’t looked at the consequences of what big multinational companies have in place,” he says. “A lot of multinational companies that send seconded employees abroad tend to have one type of policy agreement or policies in place for what individuals are entitled to.” 

The rental contract issue

One of the big issues when it comes to secondees has been housing. 

“We’ve actually had some requests where they’ve asked, ‘where is this person staying in Sweden?’, and we say, ‘they’re still abroad, there’s no housing secured for them’.”

“Companies,” Vaz says, “tend to have a policy where they offer temporary accommodation for three months while the person comes, settles and tries to find their own permanent accommodation.” 

But the agency is now asking applicants for signed rental contracts before they’ve even arrived.

“They’re asking for rental contracts. Well, they’re not even in Sweden to sign contracts,” he says. 

READ ALSO: How will Sweden’s new work permit rules apply in practice?

Long delays expected 

Vaz says that when the new maintenance requirement came in last year, it took the Migration Agency six months to issue guidelines on how it interpreted the new law, leading to long delays. 

“Instead of the four weeks that they’re supposed to take for certified applications, it actually took months,” he says. “What we’re going to see now is the exact same thing. It’s a repeat, if not worse, of what happened last year.”

What is frustrating for those dealing with the agency is that none of the new rules have been sprung on it at short notice: they were first floated in 2020 and were originally supposed to have been passed in 2021. But it is unprepared nonetheless. 

“The Migration Agency are not going to be able to get on top of things and interpret the new legislation. There is just going to be a mess, because the case officers are not going to know what they’re requesting,” he worries.

“They don’t know how to analyse it, because most of these case officers don’t have the experience or the background. They rely on internal senior case officers, who then in turn rely on the legal department, who have yet to say how they’re interpreting the law.”

This means that those applying for permits, and the firms, like Ernst & Young, who advise them, will be in a position of uncertainty for months to come.

“We’re kind of in a limbo stage, and of course, then there’s the Swedish summer period coming, when everyone will be away,” he says.

“We just have so much uncertainty as to what they’re going to be requesting, how they’re going to be requesting information. And what are the consequences? It is just going to be extended processing times.”