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WORK PERMITS

EXPLAINED: What do we know about Sweden’s new work permit bill?

Sweden's parliament has voted through a new bill empowering the government to increase the minimum salary for a work permit. This is what we know so far.

EXPLAINED: What do we know about Sweden's new work permit bill?
Sweden's Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard has yet to say what the new salary threshold will be. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

What is the new bill and where does it come from? 

The new bill, called “A higher subsistence requirement for labour migrants” (Ett höjt försörjningskrav för arbetskraftsinvandrare), was formally proposed by the former Social Democrat government on September 6th after discussions in the social insurance committee. 

The Social Democrat government on February 6th appointed the judge Anita Linder to carry out an inquiry into “improved labour migration”, which was then sent out for consultation and discussed in the parliament’s social affairs committee, before the government submitted the proposal to parliament. 

What does the bill say? 

The bill empowers the government to raise the maintenance requirement for work permit applicants from outside the EU, the Nordic countries and Switzerland above the current 13,000 kronor a month. 

The bill does not specifically state how much higher the maintenance requirement should be, or propose a date for when the changes should come into force.

In the proposal, it states that the new law can be implemented on “the day the government decides”. The new threshold, meanwhile, is to be set by a government directive which is supposed to be issued at the same time the law comes into force. 

How high is the new maintenance threshold likely to be? 

It’s not yet clear. However, the government may choose to follow the Tidö Agreement through which the far-right Sweden Democrats and the three government parties (the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals) agreed to back Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson as prime minister. 

In this agreement the parties agreed to set the minimum salary for work permits to be awarded at the median salary in Sweden, which is about 33,000 kronor a month.

This is a compromise between the 35,000 kronor minimum salary put forward by the Sweden Democrats and the Christian Democrats, and the proposals from the Moderates and Social Democrats, who wanted to set the rate at 85 percent of the median salary (about 27,540 a month) and the Social Democrats, who have floated a minimum salary of about 27,000 kronor. 

In an interview with Radio Sweden on December 3rd, Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard stated that the 33,000 kronor a month limit was not yet set, and that the government would “look into the exact amount”. She also stated that the government “will also be able to make exceptions for some individual professional groups,” although she did not go into detail on which groups this would include.

The Centre Party and the Liberal Party were both against the proposal in the run-up to September’s general election, arguing that Sweden’s existing liberal labour migration laws have been economically beneficial.

The Liberals are likely to respect the Tidö Agreement now they are part of the government. 

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

Who is against raising the salary threshold? 

The Centre Party has been the biggest opponent in parliament, arguing that the hotel, restaurant and retail industries in particular will struggle to find staff if they are not able to hire workers internationally. 

Martin Ådahl, the party’s economics and business spokesperson, told The Local his party was opposed on both practical and principled grounds to the proposal.

“It is clear in practical terms that many businesses rely on persons from abroad that have qualifications which lead to more growth and jobs in Sweden,” he said. “This is dependent on people starting with reasonable wages because they are new and don’t speak the language. It’s a loss for both Sweden and the individuals.” 

But he said the party’s liberal ideology also made supporting the proposal impossible. 

“On principle, it is wrong that authorities and boards staffed by public officials should tell businesses which talents they should hire at what wages,” he said. “This kind of wage regulation and minimum wages is something Sweden is opposed to otherwise.”

A lot of criticism has also come from business. Ann Öberg, the chief executive of Almega, a trade body representing businesses in the IT, telecoms, engineering, architecture, media, private healthcare, train operations, and security industries, wrote an opinion piece in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper at the end of October criticising the move. 

She argued that it was unrealistic to expect unemployed people already living in Sweden to fill the gap created when low-skilled labour migrants can no longer come to the country. 

READ ALSO: Swedish businesses attack work permit threshold

This article was originally published in November 2022 and updated following Malmer Stenergard’s comments in December 2022.

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WORK PERMITS

Eight ways Sweden’s Migration Agency could cut the wait for work permits

The immigration team at the accounting firm EY in Stockholm help clients with over a thousand work permit applications and renewals every year. The Local asked them for their suggestions on how the Migration Agency could cut processing times.

Eight ways Sweden's Migration Agency could cut the wait for work permits

Sweden’s new immigration minister, Maria Malmer Stenergard, said in December her government was committed to reducing the time it takes educated foreign hires to get work permits. 

“We want to focus on the highly skilled workforce coming to Sweden, and improve the rules to make handling times shorter,” she said in an interview. “We are set on improving the rules so that it will be more attractive to come to Sweden.”

The Migration Agency in December launched a kraftsamling, or special focus on reducing waiting times, with Mikael Ribbenvik, the Migration Agency’s Director General, holding a workshop for 70 members of the work permit team.

The agency is pushing ahead with its digitisation programme, which allows some parts of applications to be automatically assessed. It is also looking at how to simplify the process, and asking case officers to reserve the most detailed checks of applications for those from industries or countries associated with a high risk of abuse. 

But EY believes that these measures, while important, are only part of the solution. They provided The Local with a wish list of eight actions the agency could take – some major some small – which they believe would make a real difference.

Changes in the Migration Agency’s internal guidelines to avoid six-month permits

Since a change in the rules last June required work permit applicants to submit a signed contract, many people have only been given six-month work permits, as the case officers could now see that they had agreed to a six-month probationary period.

“It means that the backlog is huge, because they’re getting so many more extensions after six months,” explained Elin Harrysson, the leader of EY’s Immigration Practice for Sweden and a former manager at the Migration Agency. “And it’s creating a lot of problems for employees, because if they happen to get a permit that’s less than six months, then they’re not allowed to work during the extension processing time.”

What is frustrating for EY and their clients is that nothing has changed in either the rules on probationary period or in the applicants’ contracts. 

“The Employment Protection Act and the Aliens Act do not go hand in hand here and a change in legislation is needed to enable individuals to receive a permit that extends longer than the probationary period,” Harrysson said.

Many companies have simply removed the probationary period from the contracts of non-EU hires, but this means that they gain an unfair advantage over colleagues from Sweden and the EU.

Increase number of case workers

A big part of the problem faced by the agency is the discrepancy between the number of work permit applications and the staff hired to process them. According to regional director Fredrik Bengtsson, the Migration Agency had received over 100,000 applications in 2022. 

Decrease the amount of additional information requests

EY and its clients often find case officers from the Migration Agency asking for the same additional information over and over again.

“I think that’s down to a lack of training the staff, because they ask for different things, and they ask for the same things over and over again, and that prolongs the processing time a lot,” said Harrysson’s colleague Robert Kling, another former Migration Agency manager.

He said that under the agency’s own “indication-based” approach, case officers are not supposed to ask so many detailed questions when the employer is a reputable one.

“If you have indications that a company is a bit shady, then you would go in and do further research on that company,” he explained. “But EY is a certified company, which means we have an agreement with the immigration agency that we’re going to submit complete and correct applications and we represent some of the biggest companies in Sweden.

“When they start questioning things that it’s not necessary to question, it seems that there’s a lot of people that might not have the knowledge needed for the work to be done. They need internal training, or guidance on how to deal with this.”

He said that more than six months after the Migration Agency decided that a digital signature was sufficient on contracts, EY was still having to fend off requests for a so-called “wet-ink” signature.

“We see these requests coming over and over again. We appreciate that there is a lot of new staff at the Migration Agency, however these additional requests create more work and prolong the processing times not only for our clients but also for the Migration Agency themselves,” Kling said. 

Exclude certain nationalities from passport requirements

A change in internal policy within the Migration Agency has meant that work permit applicants are now required to go into their local Swedish embassy and show a copy of their passport before a work permit can be issued.

How much time this takes varies from embassy to embassy: while the Swedish embassy in New Delhi operates an efficient drop-in system, the embassy in Washington requires applicants to book an appointment.

“If they’re busy, it might take several weeks to get an appointment, so it could prolong the time to get a permit by a month,” Harrysson said.

She said the agency should consider whether passport controls are needed for all nationalities and for their dependents as well, particularly as passports are already checked by the Migration Agency before they make a decision, there is another check in person when the individual submits their biometrics, and also a third check by the border police once the individual enters Sweden.

“These checks should be sufficient and yet another check shouldn’t be needed,” she said.

Re-do the certification to be more selective

When the Migration Agency launched its certification scheme, which set up a fast-track process for big companies that make a lot of work permit applications every year, the number of certified companies ballooned.

“In the beginning, it was more selective, but now they certify a lot of companies. The whole framework of the certification has been a bit lost,” Harrysson said. “It should maybe not be a company that has two applications per year which is a small business, because if everyone is on the fast track, then it’s not a fast track.”

Certification is an agreement between the Migration Agency and participating companies in which the companies agree to submit correct and complete applications, and the agency agrees to have a turnaround of 10 working days (which it currently cannot keep).

Processing certified companies should be expanded to other departments

Right now, applications for companies on the certified fast track are handled by a single team based in Norrköping.

“Any time you have something with just one department, it becomes a bit vulnerable and they have a very high workload,” Harrysson said. “We don’t see any reason why they couldn’t give it to other departments or other cities.”

Citizenship processing was only located in Norrköping until 2021 when the agency decided to distribute that task between other offices in other cities to help bring down the long waiting times, Kling added.  

Make decision on permanent residency in connection with extension applications

Current long processing times mean an applicant might have been in Sweden with a temporary work and residence permit for four years, qualifying them to apply for a permanent residence permit during the processing time.

In these cases, the Migration Agency now issues a two-year work and residence permits. This means that the employee will have to wait a further two years to qualify for permanent residency.

“This is not beneficial for the employee or for the Migration Agency, which will receive more applications after two years and thus increase their own workload,” Harrysson said.

Previously the Migration Agency would simultaneously issue an extension of a work permit and a decision on approving permanent residency. Legally, they should still be able to do this, as it seems their internal processes rather than government guidelines have changed.

“We have raised this question with their legal department but are yet to receive a response,” Harrysson said. 

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