Social partners call for regulated labour immigration

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In autumn 2003, the LO trade union confederation and the main employers' organisations all stated that it is important that Sweden should open up to more immigration of workers from outside the EU, though this should be subject to regulation. The context is coming labour shortages brought about by an ageing population. Earlier in the year, parliament called on the government to propose new legislation on this issue, but the latter remains hesitant.

The issue of 'importing' workers to Sweden, which faces a shortage of labour from 2010 onwards due to factors such as the retirement of particularly large age cohorts from that date, has been a particular focus of public debate during 2003. On 10 April, parliament called on the government to prepare new legislation permitting labour immigration from countries outside the European Union. Sweden currently has very little labour immigration. Refugees and their families are the most common kind of immigrants, defined as foreign people from outside the EU/EEA staying in Sweden for at least one year. As for immigrant workers from outside the EU/EEA, in 2001, 442 people were given a permanent residence permit and only 1% of these received it for labour market reasons. About 22,400 people received non-permanent work permits (TN0303105S).

In May 2003, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Sveriges Akademikers Centralorganisation, SACO) presented a new policy, calling for example to make it easier for students from foreign countries to be able to stay in Sweden if they are offered a job. In July 2003, the leaders of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities (Kommunförbundet) and Swedish Federation of County Councils (Landstingsförbundet), Ilmar Reepalu and Lars Isaksson respectively, announced that they look upon labour immigration as an important way of increasing tax income and meeting a growing demand for more workers in Sweden. In October 2003, two reports were issued by private sector social partner organisations, adding further fuel to a discussion which was already heated, with so many actors finding the matter controversial that the government takes a very cautious attitude to the issue.

LO viewpoint

The first report concerning labour immigration and European integration is from the blue-collar Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen, LO), written by two officials, Dan Andersson and Thord Pettersson (Flytt, pendling, arbetskraftsinvandring och europeisk integration). In the document, for the first time LO clearly supports labour immigration provided that it is regulated and that the immigrant workers have the same pay and employment conditions as workers already established on the Swedish labour market. LO states that a more permissive situation for immigrant workers on the labour market needs strong labour legislation and protection for all workers’ rights. For example, residence permits should not end at the same time as the employment stops, and the worker in question must be given due time to look for another job.

The LO report agrees with others involved in the public debate that in 10 years Sweden will experience an increasing problem in financing the welfare system and the fast growing number of pensioners. The economy will require a larger number of working hours and more workers than are currently in employment. Sweden must decrease the large number of workers who retire early and more employees must go on working after the age of 65. More incentives must be directed towards production, and towards an increased rate of childbirth. Education must become more effective, so that it can become shorter. Furthermore, the report concludes, there will be a need for more foreign labour.

Sweden thus needs increased immigration of workers and this should be more regulated than today, the report states. The social partners should play an active role in cooperation with the state authorities, such as the National Labour Market Board (Arbetsmarknadsstyrelsen, AMS). AMS might also establish job centres in countries outside the EU, according to LO.

Employers’ position

The second report (Arbetskraftsinvandring - ett år senare) is from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) and sets out the private sector employers’ view that there is a major need to allow more foreign workers into Sweden, under the condition that they have been assigned to a job. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise has long sought to make it easier to recruit workers from other countries. This is important, according to the author, Theodor Paues, in order for Swedish companies to secure their skills base and create better conditions for growth.

The report states that two concepts of possible labour immigration exist in the Swedish debate. The first involves centralised and collective labour immigration. Under this model, the AMS has the central role of assessing which branches are short of labour, and job-seeking workers from outside the EU/EEA are then welcomed to the Swedish labour market provided that they belong to the identified shortage groups. This model means that workers already in the labour market have first priority for jobs in Sweden. It could also mean that employers have to show that it is impossible to find the kind of workers that they need in Sweden or elsewhere in the EU/EEA in order to be allowed to take on a worker from somewhere else in the world. The idea has also been mooted that almost all recruitment of foreign workers could be conducted by the Swedish state through recruiting offices in the countries concerned. This is essentially how the current very limited immigration of workers already works, the report states, showing no enthusiasm for the model in question.

The second model involves decentralised and individual labour immigration. Under this model, there would be no need for a central assessment procedure or a coordination of recruitment with other countries. Instead every company could assess its needs at local level and, if required, recruit new staff directly from other countries. This model also contains a possibility of letting foreign workers come to Sweden for a limited period, seek a job and then be allowed to stay if they conclude a contract with an employer.

The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise prefers the second model. It would be advantageous for companies if they could decide themselves over which workers they want to employ. Foreign job-seekers should be able to visit the prospective employer without going through AMS or any other authority. The Confederation admits, however, that in the public sector there may be more need for centralised labour immigration. On the other hand, public employers may also find a system where the recruitment of foreign workers takes place at the workplace level more efficient.


Sweden once operated a system of 'free' or 'tourist' immigration, allowing workers to come to the country and stay while looking for a job. However, this system proved to be impossible to handle and parliament abolished it in 1968. LO has since remained one of the strongest adversaries of any 'free' form of labour immigration, while employers have long wished to relax the current rules on the immigration of workers. However, none of the social partners today advocate free and unregulated immigration. It is understood that some regulation is needed, if only to avoid the 'chaos' of the 1960s.

For the time being, it appears, the labour immigration issue rests with the government, in spite of parliament in spring 2003 ordering the creation of a committee to survey the issue and present new legislation. The Prime Minister, Göran Persson, said in a speech to the congress of the Swedish Union for Civil Servants (Statstjänstemannaförbundet, ST) on 11 November 2003, that there is no hurry to decide anything on labour immigration and that the need for Sweden to receive more foreign workers is not immediate, but five or 10 years ahead.

There has also been a recent public discussion on the related issue of workers from the new Member States in central and eastern Europe which will join the EU in May 2004 (a similar debate has been going on in Denmark [DK0310101N] and Norway [NO0310102F]). Under transitional arrangements agreed by the EU and these countries, the existing Member States may limit movements of workers from the new Member States for a period of up to seven years after enlargement. Especially blue-collar trade unions - notably the the Building Workers Union (Byggnadsarbetareförbundet) and the Transport Workers' Union (Transportarbetarförbundet) - are afraid that without restrictions there will be 'social dumping' after EU enlargement, with lower-paid workers from the other side of the Baltic Sea coming to Sweden and competing with its relatively higher-paid workers. A couple of cases of such developments have already been reported from Skåne, in the south of Sweden, and it is also there that opinion is strongest in favour of introducing transitional arrangements. The Prime Minister has, however, on more than one occasion firmly rejected any suggestions of placing any restrictions on the possible immigration of workers from the new Member States. Parliament will probably decide on the issue before 31 December 2003. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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