Who will fill Sweden's labour gap when immigrants leave?

Paul O'Mahony
Paul O'Mahony - [email protected]
Who will fill Sweden's labour gap when immigrants leave?
A cleaner mops a floor in an office building in Stockholm. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

After experiencing first-hand how key parts of the care and service sectors are almost fully staffed by immigrants, The Local's Paul O'Mahony wonders what will happen when a new salary floor for work permit holders requires them to leave Sweden.


Is Sweden shooting itself dramatically in the foot? Business organisations, trade unions and analysts have all sounded the alarm after Sweden’s government announced it would retroactively apply a new salary floor starting November 1st.

In a recent survey, readers of The Local reacted with shock and dismay. Sweden was fully within its rights to raise the monthly salary threshold from 13,000 kronor to 27,360 kronor, readers said. Some even supported the higher level. But more or less everyone responded that it was cruel to move the goalposts for people who had built their lives and started families here.

EXPLAINED: How Sweden's doubled work permit salary threshold will work in practice

As many readers testified, integration in Sweden is a slow process. Highly educated immigrants often spend years in jobs for which they are overqualified. For many, the hope is that by the time they learn Swedish and get their foreign degrees validated they’ll be ready to transition to their chosen profession.

It’s an old and familiar story. When I first came here in 1999 I was visiting friends in Uppsala and thought I’d stay for a couple of months. My plan was to get a job and learn some Swedish while deciding what to do with the European Studies degree I’d just completed that summer.

Somehow I thought having a degree would magically make it easy to find work. But every job seemed to require fluent Swedish and the only work I could find was a cleaning job at the university hospital.

READ ALSO: 'We demand exemptions for work permit holders with work and family in Sweden'

Before entering the cleaning staff room for the first time I only vaguely knew that Sweden had lots of immigrants. Now, suddenly, more or less everyone I spent my days with was a fellow immigrant.


In my team we had an Eritrean man and a Kurdish woman who disliked each other intensely, lending our days some soap opera drama.

I remember a kind Turkish woman who helped me find somewhere to watch a football match but couldn’t write down directions as she’d never learned to read or write.

A young Iraqi guy dreamed of working as a CNN news anchor and was saving money to go to journalism school in the US.

There were Bosnians and Somalis, Chileans and Moroccans, people with very little education and others with advanced degrees, and we all scoured floors and scrubbed wards together as we moved from assignment to assignment in the labyrinthine tunnel network under the hospital wards.

READER QUESTION: Will my Swedish work permit be invalid after November 1st?

It’s been striking when reading the responses of The Local’s readers just how many immigrants share this experience. Doctors, dentists and law professionals have put in years of work as cleaners, restaurant workers, and care assistants.

They have done so with a view to getting permanent residency or citizenship and eventually transitioning to the jobs they are qualified for when their Swedish is up to scratch. Now it looks like they instead will be forced to leave Sweden.


Eventually I found work more in line with my degree, as would have been the case for many of the immigrants who are soon to be expelled and who feel like their only crime is to pay taxes and contribute to a society that doesn’t want them. Unlike them, as an EU citizen I never had to deal with the sleepless nights and endless anxiety now plaguing so many of The Local’s readers.

Sweden’s right-wing government and its far-right guarantor, the Sweden Democrats, claim that jobs vacated by workforce migrants will be filled by unemployed people in Sweden. But it’s hard to find any experts who share their view.

Trade unions and employer organisations instead argue that the government is undermining the Swedish labour model while at the same time making recruitment much more difficult for employers who would happily employ people in Sweden if they met the requirements. 

READER'S STORY: 'I'm not a criminal, so why does Sweden want to kick me out?'

The new regulation is part of a broader clampdown on immigration. But does it solve any of Sweden’s problems? Not according to Dagens Nyheter’s analyst Carl Johan von Seth, who sees trouble ahead.

“We are reliant on foreign workers in a broad range of sectors. This reliance has increased markedly over the years. And it’s easy to underestimate,” he writes in a recent column

He cites the example of Brexit, with many firms in the UK crying out for workers after immigrants left, while supermarket shelves remain empty.


Speaking on our Sweden in Focus podcast, The Local’s James Savage feared the effects could be even worse for Sweden than the UK.

“First, in the UK case people who were already there were allowed to stay in the vast majority of cases. Second, the government effectively encouraged people from the rest of the world to come to Britain to take the jobs vacated by EU workers, which was reasonably effective. There’s no sign the Swedes have a similar plan.”

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Visita, an employer group for the tourism industry, says a pay floor that the government describes as an acceptable living wage is “in reality an income requirement that exceeds the lowest wages in the tourism industry’s collective bargaining agreements”.

The Swedish Federation of Green Employers similarly represents businesses that employ many non-EU labour migrants. The companies say they can’t afford to pay foreign workers higher rates than those agreed in collective agreements, and unemployed people in Sweden never apply for their jobs in sectors like agriculture and forestry, according to a spokesperson.

Like thousands of work permit holders, the employers are hoping for a miracle. But time is running out.

READER'S STORY: 'I've poured my heart and soul into building a life in Sweden'


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Bree 2023/10/30 05:53
It seems absolutely bananas that there is no grandfathering in.

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