Labour Migration Rules put to test

Focus North: Why the Swedish trade unions are at odds. By Joakim Medin.

[Translate to English:]

Image: [Translate to English:] of Pixabay licensed under CC0 [Translate to English:]

Early February 2020 the Swedish government initiated an inquiry into the Swedish Labour Migration Law in order to address several well-known flaws in how the law handles labour migrants from third countries outside of the EU. The government announced several goals with the inquiry: to make it easier for highly skilled labour migrants to work in Sweden; and to crack down on the exploitation of the migrants. Another goal is to prevent “competence deportations”, where highly skilled migrants are deported because of minor errors in their paperwork.

Conflicting Trade Union Perspectives on Labour Migration

The inquiry was met with mixed feelings by the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), the trade union confederation with members organising private and public sector blue-collar workers, on the one hand, and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) on the other. The two leading confederations have conflicting ideas about labour migration and about the consequences of integrating migrants into the national labour market.

Neither the LO nor the TCO have a specific project to facilitate the integration of labour migrants. In typical LO professions, most migrants find work in smaller companies without collective agreements or any trade union representation. This makes it difficult for both to see the working conditions and to reach the migrants. In the TCO, however, the trade union Union offers a rather unique Guest Membership at a reduced price to professional labour migrants. In this way they have managed to organise migrants belonging to trades like the IT and restaurant sectors.  

The Swedish Model for Labour Migration – the Most Liberal in the World?

The current labour migration model in Sweden was established in 2008 by the former centre-right government and represented a significant liberalisation. The LO has been strongly critical of many of the changes. Tove Nandorf, a labour market analyst in the LO, explains that the resistance is based on both a desire to protect jobs and wages, and on a wish to prevent exploitation.

“We find it unreasonable that six out of ten labour migrants are working in typical LO professions. Most of these professions are not experiencing any labour shortages. And why should we bring in labourers from third countries when there are already unemployed people here in Sweden looking for work?”, says Tove Nandorf.

Since the reform of 2008, the Swedish model has sometimes been called the most liberal in the world. An employer has to advertise a job opening for no more than ten days in Sweden and in the EU, before being allowed to employ someone from a country outside of the EU.

“People will hardly find the time to see a job advertisement, send in a letter in Swedish, have it replied to and then get invited to a job interview, in only ten days. It’s all just a formality to be able to bring in people from third countries.”

She first developed an interest in labour migration when she paid a cleaning company to help her out at home. Tove Nandorf’s cleaner came from Belarus and had a two-year work permit and was completely dependent on her employer during that time. Had she done or said anything that might have resulted in her losing her job, she would have been forced to leave Sweden unless she found new employment fast.

This is, according to the LO, a typical example of how the current model has enabled both human exploitation, crime, and underpayment. It leads to unfair competition in the labour market and also threatens wages in several LO professions. 

The LO made its opinion heard before the inquiry into the labour migration law was announced. Among other things, the confederation wants more thorough screening of EU-registered subcontractor companies solely employing third country citizens. The LO suggests that the Swedish Migration Agency should only grant work permits after a fair and proper employment contract has been signed. Also, there should be harsher consequences for employers breaking the rules and laws.

And, very importantly, the LO also wants to reintroduce the former policy of only granting work permits to labour migrants in professions where there is a labour shortage. The confederation fears that migrants will otherwise only occupy labour positions that unemployed people already living in Sweden could fill.

“The consequence will be that the latter will remain in unemployment and not be integrated, which will lay the foundation for social instability,” says Tove Nandorf.

United in Their Criticism of Exploitation of Labour Migrants

The other trade union confederation, the TCO, agrees with several of these opinions. The TCO has been just as critical of how the current model has enabled exploitation of labour migrants, and has spoken out strongly against the fact that it is the labour migrant and not the employer who bears the burden when wrongdoings are exposed. The TCO has also demanded harsher consequences for employers, and extended cooperation between public authorities to put an end to exploitation of the system.

However, as Samuel Engblom, policy director at the TCO, explains, they are strongly against the LO suggestion to only allow labour migrants meeting a certain demand due to labour shortages.

“We fear that it would become a much to narrow system. There could still be a shortage of certain specialists in professions without a general labour shortage. The foundation of the system must be a combination of openness and equal treatment.”

The TCO argues that Sweden needs generous labour migration to fill the growing demand, at a time when the country is trying to compete on the global market. Swedish companies may very well need to recruit people from outside of the European Union, and, instead of placing more obstacles in their path, it should be easier to recruit workers – regardless of whether there are labour shortages in the trades in question or not. Allowing some but not others to get work permits would be unfair and an open labour migration with equal possibilities for all would be the best.

Migrant workers make up only a small part of the labour market

Samuel Engblom also stresses that relatively few labour migrants come to Sweden, usually about 20,000 people each year. Of the migrants that arrived in 2019, about 11,000 belonged to typical LO professions. The total LO workforce is made up of about 2.5 million people.

“The migrants only make up a small part of the Swedish labour market. The argument that they would take the jobs that others can get, and that they are a reason why other people are unemployed, simply does not make much sense,” says Samuel Engblom.

The TCO recognises that certain trades in the LO, like construction and transportation, have indeed experienced growing competition due to the arrival of foreign workers. But these are usually European workers that arrived due to the freedom of movement in the European Union, which means that it is not a question of labour migration, according to Samuel Engblom.

Despite some shared perspectives, a clear dividing line separates the two confederations on the issue of labour migration. The TCO does not find the question of how wages are effected to be an equally important issue. The LO argues, that this is simply because the TCO professions are not as affected as the LO professions.

Will there be a reform?

The findings of the inquiry into the Swedish Labour Migration Law will be presented in the course of 2021, paving the way for reform. Samuel Engblom was surprised that the stated goals went further than what was first agreed by the government and its two liberal support parties in the “January Agreement” of 2019.

“That agreement did not mention anything about stopping exploitation in the system. And another surprise was that a statement made shortly afterwards by the Social Democrats embraced the idea of only accepting labour migrants to meet a demand due to labour shortages. This they have not done in any other instance where the January Agreement forces their government to take a position that they disagree with as a party,” says Samuel Engblom.

This suggests disagreement among the parties behind the January Agreement, which should make an actual reform of the Swedish Labour Migration Law anything but easy.


Joakim Medin, Swedish Journalist and Author extensively covering migration, integration efforts and the rise ofanti-immigrant politics.

back to top