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Sweden's Södertälje: a public-private solution to immigrant challenges

Sweden's Södertälje: a public-private solution to immigrant challenges

| Text: Gunhild Wahlin Photo: Anette Andersson

Södertälje in Sweden has more than 40 percent immigrants of foreign heritage. For some years the municipality received more refugees from war-ravaged Iraq than the USA and Canada combined, so it's had its share of challenges when it comes to jobs, accommodation and traditional solutions. The result: extensive co-operation between municipality and businesses, with input from trade unions.

Södertälje municipality is looking for a managing director for the newly established company Telge Tillväxt (Telge Growth) which is owned by the municipality together with the businesses Coop, Scania, Mekonomen, Peab, Manpower, Folksam and the Telge Group. The company should be up and running this autumn. Its aim is to employ some 100 youths with interrupted educations and poor language skills. They'll be offered proper jobs with contractual pay. The aim is to half the current youth unemployment of 1,100 people within three years. This is just one example of the model Södertälje uses to create sorely needed jobs - the so-called Telge model. 

Telge is the municipality's own group which comprises several companies. Last year it was awarded the ”Social Capitalist award”, by the Swedish business weekly Veckans Affärer (The Week's Business).

"We have considerable co-operation between the parties because of our large immigration. Society on its own cannot handle the challenge, and we have been forced to be innovative and creative in a way we would not normally have been," says Anders Lago from the Social Democratic Party, chairman of the municipal executive board for the past 11 years. 

He paints a positive picture of his municipality despite media coverage describing serious concerns not least over areas like Hovsjö and Ronna, where more than 85 percent of people are of foreign heritage. It is possible to live your whole life there without ever learning to speak Swedish. 

Anders Lago ended up in the spotlight two years ago when the US Congress invited him to speak about the large number of Iraqi Christian immigrants arriving in Södertälje as a result of the war in Iraq. He has also been invited by the UNHCR in Geneva to talk about the future of migration. 

The migration challenge

As an industrial city Södertälje has a long tradition of immigration. Various nationalities have made it their home over the past 40 years. First were the Finnish labour immigrants, followed by large groups of refugees. The past decade has seen a large number of Christian Iraqis refugees arriving in Södertälje. Between 6 and 7,000 have arrived in just a few years. This has created great challenges for the municipality in terms of jobs and housing, and it has created a lot of outside interest. The main message from the municipality and its chairman is that the massive immigration of Iraqis to Södertälje cannot continue, and that the USA ought to take more responsibility for Iraqi civilians. He is  also critical to Sweden's national refugee policy which does not encourage more municipalities to take more refugees.

 Anders Lago

 "The Iraqis have come in two waves, and the 4 to 5,000 who've arrived after the US invasion are seriously short of space. The municipality has even had to use bomb shelters and storage facilities for accommodation. Many of the refugees are well educated and speak good English, but find it hard to get jobs. Most have horrible stories and have been chased from their homes," says Anders Lago.

If they don't find jobs or places to live, their own frustration grows - but also that of other groups. The fact that the right-wing National Democrats have two seats on the municipality's executive committee mirrors the dissatisfaction some feel with immigration, says Anders Lago. Even the immigrants themselves now feel Södertälje has accepted enough refugees, even though there is little conflict between immigrant groups. 

Trust and distrust 

How has immigration influenced trust between people in Södertälje and trust between citizens and the municipality?

"There is a high level of trust within various groups i Södertälje and within different areas. But you can't generally say there is a high level of trust across various groups. It's quite the opposite - we see a rather large level of segregation. Ethnic Swedes mainly stick to their own, just like Assyrians and Syrians do."

Assyrians and Syrians were the first large refugee groups to arrive in Södertälje. Today they make up the most well-established group. They enjoy low unemployment and many run successful businesses, particularly in the service industry. But that market is saturated and Södertälje municipality is working out their own methods to find work for newer arrivals. 

Co-operating to find the right jobs

"We changed the way we worked many years ago. We work more than most to get people into work, and the municipality has taken on a larger responsibility because we feel the job centres have failed in their mission so far," says Anders Lago. 

There are other examples beyond Telge Tillväxt, and they all build on the idea of creating a sustainable society through co-operation between municipality and business in commercially viable projects. Businesses have two main motives: the chance to create positive goodwill and the possibility to tackle a future lack of labour by getting people into work right now. 

The property business Telge Hovsjö was established some years ago to tackle car fires and other problems in a seriously segregated area. Locals were given a majority vote on the board and an extensive effort was made to identify the leaders behind the unrest before engaging them in positive projects. Today the area is quieter and residents are more involved in the running of things. More young people are employed in the company too.

Shortcut to salaried jobs

The municipality also takes more a more than usual active responsibility for the integration of refugees. Södertälje runs a 40 hour week for a group of new refugees with language training and work experience. Together with Manpower the municipality co-owns and runs the company Manpower Telge Jobbstart AB, which aims to get 70 percent of the currently 150 participants into real jobs. It normally takes seven years for a male refugee to get their own income. For a female refugee it takes between ten and eleven years. Södertälje is keen to break this trend. 

Learning Swedish building traditions

Another company was established this spring. Telge Peab is a co-operation between the municipality's own company and construction company Peab. Peab employs some 14,000 people. The municipality owns 49 percent of the shares in Telge Peab. Otherwise it is a commercial project to build tenant-ownership housing. So far 40 refugees with some experience from the building trade have got jobs here, learning to build houses to Swedish standards under the supervision of experienced supervisors. It means by-passing the Swedish tradition of having to start off as an apprentice. The refugees are employed and benefit from collective agreements. The local branch of the construction trade union Byggnads had doubts about the project to begin with, until Anders Lago approached their leader Hans Tilly directly. 

"When we work with the industry we create lasting jobs in a way that the municipality and job centres cannot do in isolation. And the industry think it is fun to work with us," says Anders Lago.

Building blocks for trust

Anders Lago always approaches chairpersons, owners or heads of companies when he wants to talk about the challenges facing the municipality and what help is needed. Many businesses contact the municipality on their own accord in return. 

Anders Lago feels it is important to create real jobs and proper housing for refugees, but is conscious of the need to include ethnic Swedes when measures are being taken. Half of Telge Peab employees are ethnic Swedes, half are immigrants. Experience shows national groups tend to create strong bonds, so the question is how do you keep the municipality together making sure everyone works for a common cause?

Anders Lago agrees this is an interesting question.

"The Syrians and Assyrians for instance don't have a strong tradition for associations, yet here they've created solid associations. I believe it is possible to find solutions even though they might end up different to what we are used to."

He definitely does not believe in the conservative government's plan to create a low pay market to ease the access to the labour market for newly arrived immigrants. 

"I don't buy that. One way of facing up to this challenge is to have strong unions and to avoid lowering wages. Now's the time for Sweden to improve education, quality and the development of technology, not to create low pay jobs. Many of those who come here speak several languages and are well educated, and we should use them and their knowledge," he says.

Social integration is a long process, a giant journey. You need safe living areas, good schools where children learn Swedish and you need to create real jobs.

But are new jobs and housing enough to create the trust which is needed in a well-functioning society?

"A well-functioning society must first and foremost offer jobs, but it also needs people to participate in society. It is hard to say whether this is enough. Even during times of very low unemployment you find all kinds of different problems in all societies or in municipalities," says Anders Lago.

"We have to make sure our areas don't turn into ghettos or slums. And if we can get jobs for everyone this will be a fantastic municipality," says Anders Lago.

 Anders Lago 2

Facts about Södertälje in Sweden

Södertälje municipality is some 30km south-west of Stockholm. 

A little over 85,270 people live there, 42.7 percent are of foreign heritage. The major immigrant groups come from Iraq (7,738), Finland (6,726), Syria (5,589), Turkey (5,372) and Lebanon (1,880). 

Major employers include Scania with 9,140 workers, Södertälje municipality with 5,700 workers and Astra Zeneca with 5,570 workers.

There are no political majority blocks within the municipal executive, but the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Green Party usually co-operate. The National Democrats have two members and hold the balance of power, but there is often a desire for broad political solutions.

Anders Lago is chairman of the municipal executive board, and describes the municipality like this:

"We have a young population, a strong belief in the future, strong international industries and even though we make up only one percent of the total Swedish population we provide 50 percent of the country's exports. We excel in culture and sports, and have several teams playing in the top league. (Source: Södertälje municipality)


Facts about Telge AB

Telge AB is the mother company for the Telge Group, which comprises ten companies which are all fully owned by Södertälje municipality except Telge Kraft. The group employs just over 600 people. 

Three companies work according to the so-called Telge model: Manpower Telge Jobbstart, Telge Peab and Telge Tillväxt. The model means the Telge companies co-operate with the private sector to find business-led solutions to social problems. 


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