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Refugees as labour market resource – can Norway learn from Sweden?

| Text: Berit Kvam

There is an important Nordic debate on how to integrate refugees faster and better into the labour market. At the Nordic ministers’ meeting in Helsinki, the exchange of experiences and new policies inspired discussions and new ways of thinking.

“I thought it was exciting to listen to the Swedish minister of labour today because she was so clear that receiving 163,000 refugees is an opportunity and a resource which Sweden needs for its labour market,” an inspired state secretary Christl Kvam told the Nordic Labour Journal. She represented Norway on behalf of the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Anniken Haugli. 

Employment and unemployment are core issues for the Nordic labour market model, where negotiations and tripartite cooperation are central. A high employment level is a prerequisite for the welfare system. So all of the labour ministers are focused on getting people into jobs or education as quickly as possible. Employment among refugees and immigrants is generally much lower than in the rest of the population. This can become a strain on the welfare system.

“When Ylva Johansson talks about refugees as a resource, I listen,” state secretary Christl Kvam tells the Nordic Labour Journal.  

Birth deficit

“I have been the county governor in a county with a birth deficit, and see that this is more of a solution than a problem. Eight in ten municipalities in Norway have a birth deficit today. We can start talking about refugees as a resource which we need in order to face the demographic challenges of birth deficits combined with an ageing population. 

“This could be an opportunity for Norway’s rural areas when they look for ways of handling the challenges to come, when many of the municipalities will have an increasing number of inhabitants over 67.”

Norway received 31,000 asylum seekers in 2015. So far in 2016 there have been less than 300. 17,000 are still in asylum reception centres. In its white paper From reception centre to the labour market – an effective integration policy, the government argues for an earlier and more work-related integration process. This challenge is of great interest for the state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. 

“Our goal is a more successful integration process. We are targeting our measures by making the two year long introduction programme for new arrivals more work-related, and by giving the Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) a clearer role when it comes to mapping skills and measures. Skills will be registered as early as at the refugee reception centres. Together with the social partners, we are also fast tracking the process of getting people with relevant skills into the labour market, and we will use the labour market more than before for language training.”    

Fast tracking from 2017

The fast tracking will be in place from 2017. One of the aims is for the parties to find more labour market measure workplaces in the ordinary labour market. The government will provide wage supplements and support for measures which make use of mentors in the workplace, while the newcomers’ salaries will follow tariffs. 

The state secretary also explained that an expert commission had been established.

“I believe we can share some experiences here of what we haven’t managed to do, as well as good examples. That’s why in 2017 Norway is planning a big Nordic conference on how we can introduce refugees into the labour market.”

Sweden lacks labour

Sweden’s challenges are of a different dimension. The country received 163,000 asylum seekers in  2015. That was the highest number of asylum seekers per capita ever registered in an OECD country. Three in four are below 30. 70,000 were school age children and there were 35,000 unaccompanied minors. Without belittling the challenges, the Minister for Employment and Integration Ylva Johansson underlined the opportunities which the newly arrived bring. 

“The demographic is perfect for the age distribution in the Swedish population,” says Ylva Johansson.

“It is a great challenge to get everyone into the labour market, but at the same time this is an opportunity when it comes to our demographic development. Sweden enjoyed a strong four percent growth last year, and this year’s expected growth is 3.7 percent. The big problem in the labour market is a lack of labour.” 

In the autumn budget, the government has identified 19 main paths to strengthen the work with improving the chances for those newly arrived to establish themselves quickly in working and social life. Municipalities will be given more resources, and new housing legislation gives the Swedish Migration Agency the power to allocate accommodation. Education and work experience will be mapped already in the asylum phase. Early language training will also be offered at that stage. The county administration will be tasked with coordinating early measures. 

The government has also launched the so-called 100 club, which offers package solutions for large companies which can accommodate 100 asylum seekers. The youth guarantee will be extended to include refugees. Waiting times with the authorities will be shortened and the government is allocating more money in order to strengthen already existing measures. 

“We face big challenges when it comes to getting more people into education. After the two year long introduction programme, only seven percent go on to study more. This is our big challenge,” says Ylva Johansson.

Together with the social partners, Sweden has tried out fast tracking access to certain occupations. From 2017 this measure will be extended. The parties will welcome the newly arrived with occupational training, and make sure they have their skills tailored if necessary. 

Lack of housing

A lack of housing is another challenge, according to the government minister. 

“It is difficult to find housing for people where the jobs are.”

Another challenge is gender differences.

“A growing number of people outside of the labour market are born abroad. We have removed the cash-for-care benefit, because it led to women staying at home. We are also looking at whether the child benefit has the same effect.”

Ylva Johansson takes a humanitarian approach when she talks about the new citizens. The younger ones are compared to her own teenage children who need support and guidance. But it becomes a problem when women start their new life in Sweden by giving birth. 

“Of course when you have fled hell on earth and finally been given a permission to stay, you want to start a family and give birth to the children you did not dare to have earlier. But it is a challenge that many start their time in Sweden by becoming parents and staying away from working life. That’s why we are using the employment service’s support for those who are outside of the labour market.” 

When it comes to labour market inclusion, private companies in Sweden are best, municipalities second best and the state the worst. From now on more people should be given the opportunity to get internships in the state, promises Ylva Johansson.

“Public authorities will take in 1,000 newly arrived between them every year in the period leading up to 2018.” 

Big differences in the Nordic region

“The situations in our countries are very different,” says ambassador Kristin Arnadottir, who represents the Icelandic minister.

“We do not have the kind of problems described here. 90 percent of immigrants are in the labour market. No other country has so many included in the labour market.”

The representatives for the autonomous areas do not have the responsibility for receiving refugees. Rapid change also colours the political landscape. In Iceland the parties had still not found a government solution after the elections. Denmark’s prime minister formed a new government before the ministers' meeting. The new minister had not had much time to prepare. 


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