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Swedish companies decide labour immigration

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

In December 2008 Sweden introduced new rules for labour immigration making it easier for employers to recruit labour from countries outside of the Nordic region and the EU. In the year following the change the number of people applying for work permits rose by 30 percent on the previous year.


The reason for the change to the Swedish Aliens Act was to ease the access to Sweden's labour market for people from outside the EU. Previously the Swedish Public Employment Service would assess which sectors needed workers, now the employers themselves decide. A lack of manpower within a particular sector is no longer a prerequisite for a company wanting to take on workers from outside the EU.

"That's good news," says a Chinese doctoral student at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

He is 27 and has lived in Sweden for about four years as one of some 500 Chinese students at KTH. He doesn't want to give his name or appear in pictures as he doesn't feel his views are representative for Chinese students in general. 

Improved competitiveness

The 2008 changes to the Aliens Act were aimed at making it easier for companies to hire competent labour from countries outside of the EU, which again would improve Sweden's standing in the competition for future manpower. The Minister for Migration, Tobias Billström, described the change as the largest reform of Swedish immigration policy in decades. If a Swedish employer has a concrete job offer for a person from a third-country, that person will be given a permit to stay and work for two years, with the view of a further two year extension. After that it should be possible to apply for permanent residency. The idea has been to ease future labour immigration. 

Tobias Billström wrote in the broadsheet Dagens Nyheter: "Improved chances for labour immigration will be decisive for Sweden's ability to meet the challenges of the labour market today and in the future." And even though the new legislation coincided with the economic downturn, a new evaluation from Sweden's Migration Board shows a 30% increase in work permit applications during the first year of the new legislation. 16,500 people applied for work permits, and 84% of them succeeded.

The average labour immigrant is a computer technician from India working in Stockholm. There are also labour immigrants within the computer, communication and electronics industries, and a few short term contract seasonal workers. Most of those who started work in Sweden during the first year after the new legislation came from India, China and Thailand.

Mobile students

One group which has benefited from the new legislation is students. 395 students were granted permits to stay and work between December 2008 and December 2009. Most came from Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, and now work in the restaurant industry, as computer specialists, civil engineers and architects.

For now at least, it is easier for students from third-countries to move between countries than for job seekers. Chinese students often travel abroad to study for their master and doctorate degrees. Many choose English language countries. The doctoral student at KTH chose Sweden because what is happening there is relevant to his studies in environmental technology.    

"I feel Sweden is ahead in this field. The Chinese state also helps students who want to develop skills which could benefit China in the future," he says. 

He is happy with his studies in Sweden, which are less constrained and allow for a slower pace than studies in China. In his home country the competition between students is far stronger. He says China works hard every day to develop its universities, not least by learning from American and European top learning institutions.

A good work environment increases interest

The 27-year-old doctoral student is fascinated by the regulated Swedish labour market.

"Everything is regulated and has been for a long time. It makes it easier to work here. You know the rules and it is easy to keep on top of things. It is comfortable to work in such an environment," he says.

He thinks the Swedish system has the competitive edge when it comes to attracting foreign labour. But the flip side of the coin, he feels, is that everyone is allowed to perform according to their own abilities, which won't result in as many leaders and heroes - and that affects productivity.

He hopes to finish his dissertation in about a year from now, and will then return to China for a few years.

"Since I have been here on a government grant, I want to work for a while in China to give back some of what I have been given. Then after a while I will make choices which will benefit my career and which will develop my skills. That will decide where I end up," says the young man at KTH.


Sweden's labour immigration legislation was changed on 15 december 2008. Previously the Swedish Public Employment Service would assess which sectors needed labour, now the employers themselves decide whether there is a need to import workers from outside the EU.

People who want to work in Sweden must have a job offer which will make them self-sufficient, and with conditions that don't undermine the working conditions in the domestic industry. 

A work permit is valid for two years and will be specifically linked to one employer. After two years the worker can apply for another two year permit, which will be linked only to the type of industry he or she is working in.

 After that the temporary permit to stay and work can be made permanent. Foreign students finishing their studies after having studied for at least one term can apply for work from Sweden. The new rules also allow failed asylum seekers who have worked for at least six months in Sweden and who have an offer of at least a one-year contract to apply for a permit to stay and work. 

The parties to the labour market were active in forming the new regulations and are now represented in a special council dealing with issues surrounding work permits.

The regulations are administered by Sweden's Migration Authority and you can read more at


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