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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?
Tove Hovemyr is public policy expert at the liberal think tank Fores. Photo: David Redebo

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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WORK PERMITS

Foreigners trapped by Swedish work permit delays call for visa relief

Work permit holders in Sweden have launched a petition asking the Migration Agency to issue special visas allowing those affected by long renewal times to leave Sweden and return.

Foreigners trapped by Swedish work permit delays call for visa relief

After just a day, the petition has already been signed by 2,700 people at the time this article was last updated, indicating just how many are being affected by the long processing delays at the agency. Some foreigners in Sweden are currently having to wait for as long as 15 months to have their work permits renewed, leaving them unable to visit relatives and loved ones back home. 

Fredrik Bengtsson, the director at the agency responsible for work permits this week told The Local that the delays were the result of new rules that came into force in June, the need to redeploy staff to handle refugees from Ukraine, and a post-pandemic surge in applications. 

The petition was launched on Thursday by Dina Ahmad, a Lebanese IT professional, who has herself been waiting five months for a renewal.

“I decided to launch this petition because I have seen this affect many people,” she told The Local. “I have heard tragic stories about people who could not go back home to see their relatives before they passed away.” 

She heard of one person who had to wait 23 months for a renewal, which as the permit was only valid for two years, meant they had only one month of validity left when they finally received it, meaning they had to immediately go through the entire process again.

In the petition, she complains about the “incomprehensible” rule that people from countries that require a visa to enter the EU who leave Sweden while waiting for a work permit decision may not be allowed to return to Sweden. 

“It is a huge injustice that residents who are here working and paying taxes are unable to return to the country and resume their jobs should they decide to leave,” the petition states. “Many need to visit their families, deal with paperwork back home, or just take a break.” 

The petition notes that other EU countries do not have this rule, with Denmark, for instance, having a “re-entry permit”, or “tilbagerejsetilladelse”, allowing those waiting for decisions to return home. 

It also notes that the Migration Agency has already started issuing so-called D-visas so that people waiting for work permit decisions can attend business meetings abroad.  

“We ask that a solution can be found wherein residents can travel and be able to come back and resume their work in Sweden while waiting for a decision,” they state.  “Perhaps the D-visa can be extended to allow non-business related travel as well.” 

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

Moataz Mohamed, one of the signatories, wrote under the petition that the delay in processing his new work permit had prevented him from “going home to get married to the love of my life”. 

“With the increasing time for a decision, we can’t even plan anything or book a venue. At the same time, my father is sick and if something happens to him, I can’t even think of what to do,” he wrote on the petition. “This rule is prejudiced and borderline racist.” 

Hyder Ali Mohamed, another signatory, wrote that despite working for a certified company, he had been waiting for permanent residency for more than 25 months. 

“Last time we visited our families and friends back home was more than four years ago, and we will never see some of our closest family members ever again who passed away last year,” he wrote. “The sad part is that even after informing this multiple times to the case officer, he is not making a decision.”

“Imagine being locked in a place and not allowed to move out of the country for the reason of delayed process for months or even a year,” wrote Suneel Seelam, another signatory. “I know the pain of it myself and have seen friends of mine suffering from it. I like to travel at least once a year, and for some family reasons people have to travel.” 

The Local has approached the Migration Agency to ask if it is considering changing its policy. 

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