Sweden is considered a leader in social and multi-ethnic inclusion. Welfare reforms created one of the most socially equal societies in the world. Such policies provided for housing, free education, social insurance, health care, a broad network of public libraries, tuition-free universities and accessible popular education forums. These policy measures safeguarded migrant groups’ inclusion in Swedish society by providing more equalised opportunities for competition on the labour market. In particular, accessible post-elementary education for all and tuition-free higher education have resulted in a highly educated work force. However, when we take a closer look at the kinds of positions held by people with a foreign background their presence is skewed. Foreign-born employees are overrepresented in blue collar occupations. In occupations with higher status, we see less inclusion.
Sweden is also a frontrunner of multicultural policies. The immigration policies of the 1970s targeted employment-related issues but also promoted migrants’ pursuit of maintaining their ethnic identity, as well as full and equal citizenship and inclusion in associational life. A government proposition titled “Sweden, the future and diversity – from immigrant politics to integration policies” (Regeringens proposition, 1997/98:16) was accepted by the parliament. It expanded the multicultural idea of Sweden as a diverse country, recognising minorities’ diverse languages and religions as part of the nation’s new identity. The bulk of state support for migrants is allocated during the first years after a person’s arrival in the country. Nevertheless, through measures such as dual citizenship and group-specific rights, bilingual education and support for ethnic minority and migrant groups’ associational life, integration policies have supported multicultural citizenship. For example, migrant and minority associations have been included in consultative bodies in a participatory state structure. These consultations have provided a voice for migrant experiences in government affairs and indirectly promoted inclusion on the agenda. Other policies have also targeted public institutions to encourage non-discriminatory public service provision and recruitment policies.
From the 2000s onwards, two strands have criticised the multiculturalist agenda. The one strand argues that multiculturalism is not effective, as assimilationist ideology is still prevalent. Hence, the problem is the structural discrimination of migrants and the difficulty of adjusting to vague and unachievable norms set by “Swedishness”. This strand proposes more egalitarian welfare politics. It also recognises racism as a major problem and stresses the need to take action against it. A widely debated yet marginalised government commission - “The commission for the investigation of power, integration and structural discrimination” - proposed this stance after the publication of a series of research-based reports.
The other strand argues that integration policies have not been assimilationist enough. This argument focuses on high unemployment among foreign-born citizens. It stresses the importance of employability through assimilation into a “Swedish” culture and through language education. This latter strand dominated the politics of the Liberal-Conservative governments of 2006-2014 and the political programme of the first foreign-born cabinet minister (and first minister of colour) in Sweden, Nyamko Sabuni. Sabuni, former Integration- and Gender Equality Minister and now leader of the Liberal Party, implemented a mix of assimilation and anti-discrimination policies without changing any of the main traits of multiculturalism. The dissolution of the state “Integration Board” and the empowerment of the “Equality Ombudsman”, who also oversees the enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation, is a sign of the loss of faith in multiculturalism.
The current Social Democratic and Green Party cabinet has emphasised anti-racism in a strategy document but has not made any major changes to its integration policies. The influence of the growing—and at the time of writing most popular—party, the right-wing populist “Sweden Democrats”, has amplified assimilationist ideas. Parallel to the crumbling of the welfare state this has created a debate pointing towards less inclusive state approaches. The extent to which these ideas are actually being implemented is still unclear. Parallel developments can be seen on the municipal level. Some municipalities are advancing assimilationist ideas, while larger urban governments are not.
Thus, Swedish public services still promote equal inclusion. Although it was never mandatory for them to do so, state employers adopted policies on ethnic diversity, which promoted multi-ethnic inclusion in public services from the 1990s onward. These diversity policies were surfing on nation-wide infrastructures laid down by the legally compulsory gender equality policies but placed an emphasis on multiculturalism. Recent developments have reshaped these policy structures somewhat along discourses of “equal treatment”, emphasising intersectional approaches and “human rights”. Few indications exist that these ambitions have faltered, yet research on the structures and impacts of diversity policies has dwindled since 2006, as a result of Liberal-Conservative government strategies. One central policy reference point is the anti-discrimination reform known as “The Discrimination Act” (2008), which further stresses equal opportunities and non-discrimination for ethnic and religious minority groups while also taking into consideration other categories such as gender and age. Consequently, public services are still required to be inclusive and must offer equal opportunities to all citizens aspiring to a career in public service. Academic research on how inclusive public services really are is scarce.
A brief sketch of the situation reveals that despite the fact that one third of the population has a migrant background (one or two foreign-born parents) and 20 percent are immigrants, neither central state nor local government sectors have fully managed to reflect the composition of the population. This would indicate the existence of discrimination in both recruitment, the work environment and in career development. Public services constitute about one third of the labour market with the largest portion of the employees working in the municipal service organisations. From an over-all perspective, foreign-born individuals are fairly represented in half of the 290 municipalities and under-represented in the other half. On the level of the central state, roughly 19 percent of the employees have a foreign background, a number that has steadily increased over the past two decades.
When we look closer at the kinds of positions held by people with foreign backgrounds, it becomes clear that their presence is skewed. Analysis from 2007 shows that foreign-born employees are overrepresented in blue collar occupations in municipalities: cleaners, canteen staff and healthcare assistants etc. They are under-represented in white-collar fields such as social work, teaching and civil service. The latter are still more representative than top-end roles such as managers, lawyers and directors. In the state sectors, only about around 10 percent of the officials in leading positions were foreign-born. Hence, the higher you reach in the echelons of government, the less inclusion you will find.
In metropolitan Sweden, foreign-born people and their children constitute a critical mass of the urban population, roughly 40 percent. However, only 2.7 percent of top city officials are born in a country other than Sweden. Horizontally, statistics from both state, regional and municipal sectors show that minority groups are more likely to be employed in social, cultural and educational positions and less likely to work in technical and security professions, the latter often enjoying greater resources and authority in their operations.
The consequences of a non-representative public service can be severe. Somewhere around a million non-white Swedes are and feel unfairly represented in domains that they finance and constitute as taxpayers and voters. Studies indicate that the lack of certain minority-related life experiences among top officials can have an impact on how minority populations fare in processes of local government. Unrepresentative bureaucracies are likely to be biased in relation to individual treatment, legal proceedings or priorities in how resources and privileges are distributed in policymaking. However, debates around representation are scarce. One impediment is a general belief in meritocratic principles and the redistributive effects of the welfare state. Since Sweden is considered a world champion in inclusion, criticism of inequality is easily neglected. Rather, under-representation of minority groups and the lack of fair career opportunities are often viewed more as an individual than as a societal problem. To claim that one is being exposed to discrimination is a social taboo. Instead, individuals are encouraged to work harder and make efficient use of the opportunities at hand. This ideological gridlock tends to worsen the feelings of exclusion.
Nazem Tahvilzadeh, PhD Public Administration, Researcher at the Department of Urban Planning and the Environment, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm.