Sweden: new law set to dismantle country’s broad work permit system

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This blog post is based largely on information provided by George Joseph Caritas Sweden whom we are grateful for his time and expertise.*

Sweden’s labour migration policy has long been known as one of the most straightforward and inclusive in the region, with one set of rules applying for all types of employment. But a bill voted by the Swedish Parliament in November 2022 is set to reshape the migration and labour migration landscape in the country. The changes will make the rules more complicated, and block non-EU workers from accessing work permits in many jobs and sectors where they are currently employed.

While the current Swedish labour migration model is not without its shortcomings, it represents a promising example of how labour migration policy can make work permits accessible for non-EU workers across all jobs and sectors of the economy, in line with applicable regulations. This policy reflects many of the essential characteristics of successful labour migration and work permit policies, as set out in PICUM’s report Designing labour migration policies to promote decent work. A table comparing these aspects to PICUM’s policy recommendations and related indicators can be found here.

What will change

Among the advantages of the Swedish work permit policy was its openness to workers across sectors and skills. Changes, introduced by a right-wing coalition, will make it much more difficult for migrants to work in the country in occupations that receive lower salaries.

Increased income requirements

The government decided to introduce a specific income requirement for non-EU workers to obtain a work permit.  Until now, the offered salary had to align with applicable collective agreements, which set pay for the specific job in question and specify that the lowest salary for any job is SEK 13,000 (approximately €1,118 on 3 October 2023) per month, the lowest level at which it is considered possible to live in Sweden without welfare support. The new income requirement will more than double that amount, to SEK 27,360 (approximately €2,353 on 3 October 2023) per month. This is 80 percent of the Swedish median salary, so will exclude those working in the numerous jobs with lower pay.

The government claims this change will reduce labour exploitation of migrant workers on low income, but it will likely result in increased precarity, undeclared and undocumented work across key sectors.

Restrictions to family life

Workers who wish to bring their families to Sweden will have to prove appropriate accommodation and sufficient financial means to support them. How these requirements will be applied in practice, remains to be seen, but may increase family separation. Under the previous system, workers could apply simultaneously for their permits and to bring their immediate family members with them, without particular restrictions, meaning it was possible for them move to Sweden together as a family.

Harsher immigration enforcement

The situation changes also for those people who lived undocumented in Sweden but were able to secure a job offer in the country: in the past, immigration authorities would allow them to leave Sweden, apply for the work permit from their country of origin, and return to Sweden. A political agreement was reached – and is currently being challenged – to take various steps to increase the deportation of undocumented people and make life even harder for undocumented people. As part of this, authorities plan to implement more strictly the provision that people’s undocumented residence in Sweden could be counted against them in any new work permit application. This will trap people in undocumented residence and undeclared work in Sweden, even when they have a firm offer of employment that would otherwise be eligible for a work permit.

The changes are set to take effect on 1 November 2023, impacting workers who apply after this date. It is unclear if the new rules will also be applied to applications submitted before this date that are still being processed and renewals.

This reform raises major concerns about likely negative impacts on the workforce and the overall inclusivity and fairness of the Swedish migration system, especially for workers in low-paid jobs such as in the restaurant, cleaning, and home service sectors. 

Sweden’s labour migration system

Sweden’s labour migration system as introduced in 2008 allows non-EU citizens from any country to apply for a work and residence permit in any job and sector. Until 1 October 2023, there was no discrimination or differential treatment based on the type of work, skill level or income, as long as the employment relationship meets applicable regulations and collective agreements. As of 1 October, the job offers must also meet a minimum income threshold which is 80 per cent of the median salary in Sweden, and will exclude numerous lower-paying jobs across different sectors (as described above).

To be eligible for a work permit, workers need a written job offer from an employer based in Sweden. Employers are required to advertise job openings in Sweden and the European Economic Area for ten days before offering the position to a non-EU citizen.

Application process

The application is initiated by the employer, but completed and submitted by the worker, giving them some ownership over the procedure. The employer needs a trade union statement which approves the conditions presented in the employment contract. When the trade unions issue a negative statement, the Swedish Migration Agency will revise the contract to make sure it meets labour standards and then issue a final decision. In certain industries, small employers must also demonstrate their ability to pay the employee’s salary.

The application can be submitted online through the Migration Agency’s website or via the Swedish consulate or embassy abroad. However, the processing time for work and residence permits applications can vary, ranging from several months to over a year, depending on the workload of the authorities.

Permit granted

Once the work permit is granted, it remains valid for the duration of the employment contract, or for maximum of two years if the contract is for a longer period. It is common for migrant workers to receive a long-term job offer and work permit of 2 years. Permits can be renewed for an additional two years. After holding a work permit for a continuous period of four years, individuals can apply for permanent residency.

Work permit holders are not allowed to change employers on their permit for the first 2 years; a new permit must be applied for.

In case the worker loses or decides to change their job, they can be unemployed for up to three months within the validity of their permit, while they search for a new employer.

If the new employment is within the same occupation and sector, the worker can remain in Sweden and submit the application from within the territory.  Once the application has been submitted, the existing permit is not revoked, and the person can start the new employment while the application is being processed.

Once a worker’s initial 2-year permit has been renewed, they can work in the same occupation for a different employer on the same permit. They may also submit an application for a new permit for a job in a different occupation from within the country, but must still remain within the same work sector.

To change work sector, the person must submit a fresh application from outside of the country.

*Most of the information related to the current labour migration policy was also published in our 2021 report Designing labour migration policies to promote decent work further sources can be found there.