A voice for newcomers in Sweden

Beyond berry pickers and coders: Sweden’s overlooked migrant workers

Photos: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

Published: 31.Oct.2016 14:48 hrs

With Sweden’s immigration debates focusing mainly on lucrative tech startups, exploited berry pickers, and an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers, migrant workers in the middle ground are grappling with their own problems but struggling to get their voices heard.

In Rinkeby on the outskirts of Stockholm, Jovana Ciric carries, dribbles and blocks for a living. Life as a professional basketball player has given the 33-year-old Serbian an insight into labour conditions in Cyprus, Greece, Bosnia and the Czech Republic. 

But when basketball club Akropol in 2014 offered her one of its few contracts reserved for non-European Union players, she decided to take the leap and move to Sweden, a country whose reputation as a strong welfare state with a chilled-out populace appealed to her. 

Ciric says she "felt at home right away" at the new club, but nevertheless, she wishes Sweden would loosen some of its labour regulations. 

Jovana Ciric. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

Each year more than 3,000 foreign athletes, lecturers, au-pairs, researchers, and performers make their way to Sweden for work.

Together they help make Sweden’s labour market one of the world’s most diverse. Since 2010, workers representing more than 160 countries and 170 professions have moved to the country for their jobs.    

But newcomers often face the kinds of restrictions locals never have to worry about. For instance, professional athletes from outside the EU are permitted to work only for the club that signs them. 

“I’ve got the time to do other work, but not the opportunity,” said Ciric at a discussion forum hosted by MIG Talks, a communications arm of the Swedish Migration Agency designed to give migrants a greater voice. 

“I’m not allowed to have an extra income, which is a pity because then I’d be able to meet people, form networks, and feel more involved in society. Women in sport have lower wages than men and many of us would like to have an extra job where we can socialize and make new contacts,” added Ciric. 

She also argued that Sweden would benefit financially from her paying more taxes. 

But the rules state that whether you’re an employee, athlete or visiting lecturer from a non-EU country, for the first two years your work permit is strictly tied to the specific employer that recruited you. If the permit is then extended, it remains limited to a single occupation for a further two years.

“It has been argued that a work permit holder who gains a side-income from a second employer wouldn’t cause any harm to either of the two employers, and that the regulation is too rigid,” said Fredrik Martinsson, a legal expert at the Swedish Migration Agency. “But this is a political question, and any changes need to happen at a political level.”

Eight years have now passed since Sweden ditched one of the world’s most restrictive frameworks for immigrant workers and replaced it with one of the most liberal. Before 2008, Sweden’s Public Employment Agency set a quota for non-EU economic migrants based on its assessment of the country’s labour needs.

The 2008 labour migration law flipped this old order on its head: economic migrants were now welcome to come to Sweden if they could find an employer. The intention behind the reform was to create a 'demand-led' system in order to ease labour shortage in certain occupations and sectors.

But despite this dramatic overhaul, the increase in labour migration has not been as extensive as could have been expected. The number of migrants who move to Sweden for work remains fairly low, with a few exceptions in certain occupational groups.

What’s more, surprisingly little research has been carried out to measure what the change has meant for Sweden - or for the people who have moved here to work.

Lisa Söderlindh, head of MIG Talks, said that detailed research in this area “would be useful in order to understand some of the gaps in the current system, and to cast light on how labour migration contributes to Swedish society."

“The latter is a topic many of the workers participating in MIG Talks have raised as a missing aspect in public debate,” Söderlindh added.

In the years since the 2008 reform, reports on economic migration in the Swedish press have tended to focus on two extremes: the plight of seasonal berry pickers in northern Sweden, many of whom have fallen into the hands of exploitative employers; and, at the big-money end of the scale, a burgeoning startup scene that has provided fertile ground for immigrant entrepreneurs and tech workers, the numbers of which have increased in recent years. 

Meanwhile, workers who do not fall into either of these camps slipped even further off the media radar last year when Sweden took in unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers. 

The Swedish Migration Agency found itself swamped. Workers waiting for residency permits were suddenly vying for attention with 160,000 people fleeing war, poverty and persecution. 

Marcia Paniagua, a domestic services worker from El Salvador, is one of many who have had to wait a long time for paperwork to be processed. 

Marcia Paniagua. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

Despite paying tax since 2012, she has received conflicting information from the Swedish Tax Agency as to whether she can be issued with a personal identification number, which is crucial for getting on in Sweden.

“All the focus now is on asylum seekers. Those of us who are here for other reasons are forgotten,” she told participants in the MIG Talks discussion at the Nordic Museum. 

Hers is a recurring complaint among migrant workers, many of whom sympathize with refugees but worry that their own cases risk getting lost in the backlog. 

The average waiting time for a decision on an initial work permit application has increased from 40 days in 2015 to 49 days in 2016, while the decision on applications for permit extensions has gone from 95 days to 121 days.

Canadian violinist Wonnie Lee fared better. After a three-year stint in Berlin, she upped sticks for Sweden in 2014 when the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra offered her a job. Things quickly fell into place for her: she loves the city, her job, and her fellow musicians, whose warm welcome made her feel at home.

Wonnie Lee. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

“I don’t hear much about my type of migration but I get the impression that it’s viewed quite positively,” she said. 

“A company has decided it’s you they want - so you’re seen as someone who has been chosen, rather than as an intruder.” 

She is especially grateful to her employer for doing everything possible to help with all the paperwork involved when moving to a new country. 

“I personally haven’t had any negative experiences of coming here to work. My colleagues think it’s fun to have new people, and almost all the latest jobs in the orchestra have gone to people outside Sweden. 

However, Yusak Susilo, a lecturer from Indonesia, said universities in other countries where he had worked — such as Japan, the Netherlands and the UK — were better equipped to assist foreign academics in navigating the local bureaucracy.

Yusak Susilo. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

“There were help desks where foreign employees and students could ask questions and get advice. Something similar would be good in Sweden,” he said.

“This would prevent well-educated employees and students from having to run back and forth to different agencies. Better coordination would save time for civil servants and migrants alike.”

Markus Filipsson, a process manager at the Swedish Migration Agency, agrees. “It would be relevant and appropriate for universities to offer a support function,” he said.

“We are aware of the range of agencies and organizations involved in the application process, and the risk of conflicting messages and delays owing to the different information flows.”

Filipsson explained that the Swedish Migration Agency is active in the Forum for Internationalization – a body created in late 2008 by the Ministry of Education with the aim of removing obstacles to internationalization of higher education in Sweden.

“The notion of a ‘one-stop shop’ for information has been touched upon in this forum,” said Filipsson. “The applicants – and all those involved in the process – would benefit from the information being better coordinated.”

Sweden has a widening skills gap, and it needs migrant workers to fill it. It’s an attractive destination, for sure, but recruitment experts fear that growth could be stifled by factors including an acute housing shortage in the biggest cities, and processing delays that could put people off.

“Addressing the challenges and opportunities related to labour migration is not a number equation which can be easily solved,” Lisa Söderlindh noted. “Rather, the question is how we can put a spotlight on the real experiences of those who have migrated to Sweden for work and for other reasons.

“Their views and concerns must help shape the actions, solutions and discussions around labour migration.”

Deepak Kamboj. Photo: Tomislav Stjepic, Migrationsverket/MIG Talks

Deepak Kamboj, an IT-expert from India, believes that Sweden should cherish the mutual benefits of migration, and look at what can be done to make it easier for labour migrants to establish themselves here. 

“We live in a digital world – almost everyone today can connect across borders and work for whomever they wish. The labour market will only get more internationalized. It is high time that we accept and adapt to this changed reality, and cherish it,” said Kamboj.

For more information about MIG Talks, see its website and Facebook page.


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