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?
José Vaz is senior manager for Global Immigration and People Advisory Service at Ernst & Young. Photo: private

“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.” 

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Sweden Democrat leader: ‘We don’t want unions to control work permits’

The leader of the populist Sweden Democrats party has told The Local that he is opposed to Social Democrat plans to bring back 'labour market testing' for work permits, preferring to instead raise the salary threshold.

Sweden Democrat leader: 'We don't want unions to control work permits'

In an interview after holding his summer speech in his home town of Sölvesborg, Jimmie Åkesson told The Local that while his party believed Sweden’s system of work permits should be made stricter, he was now opposed to bringing back the old system of arbetsmarknadsprövning, or Labour Market Testing, scrapped by the Moderate-led Alliance government in 2008, where labour unions worked together with government and employers to identify jobs and sectors where there is a labour shortage.

“We don’t want the unions to have the power to decide who gets permits to come to Sweden,” Åkesson said. “But we want society, in some way, [to] have to see if it’s needed or not, and exactly how we’re going to do that I cannot say at this time.”  

He said he believed “a better solution” than a return of union involvement would be something similar to proposals made by the Christian Democrat and Moderate parties, who want to increase the minimum salary that those seeking work permits are being offered. 

READ ALSO: How do Sweden’s political parties want to reform work permits?

“If you can increase that [threshold] a lot, let’s say to 30,000 crowns or something, then you will get those highly educated immigrants but those who are not educated, they will not come, so I think that’s a better solution.” 

After a new law tightening up the work permit system came into force in June, Sweden’s Social Democrats proposed a further reform which would bring back the old Labour Market Testing system. The Moderates have instead proposed a minimum salary threshold set at 85 percent of the average Swedish salary, while the Christian Democrats want to set the threshold at 35,000 kronor a month. 

In an interview with The Local in July, Sweden’s immigration minister Anders Ygeman said that the involvement of unions would not slow down international recruitment for businesses. 

“We want to have a swift and easy system for those who are in sectors where we really need people,” he said. “And people who has been exploited in this system or, or in other sectors, will have a very tough time to come to Sweden.”

Åkesson’s views on work permits seem to contradict what is on the Sweden Democrats’ website, where it still states that the party wants “to reinstate government Labour Market Testing, and a demand for qualifications, salary, and necessity”. 

On the website, the party is extremely negative towards labour migration, stating that “economic migrants have changed Sweden for the worse”. 

The work permit system, it continues, has “in practice stopped working”, with “corruption, cheating, and human smuggling” common.

When challenged by The Local on his party’s negative rhetoric on foreign workers, many of whom bring important skills for Sweden, Åkesson stressed that he welcomed high-skilled labour migration. 

“We have a lot of migrants that contribute to Swedish society and the Swedish economy. They work and they pay taxes, and that’s fine,” he said.

“They are not the problem. The problem is more those 700,000 immigrants that cannot support themselves and that are in need of social benefits and that kind of support. That costs a lot of money,” he said. “That is the problem, not the good immigrants that are working and contribute to society.”