Ethnic discrimination in Swedish labour market

Considerable ethnic discrimination exists in the Swedish labour market, which cannot be explained solely by human capital factors, such as education or language skills. Discrimination can also be generated at community and institutional level. To help solve employment discrimination, information campaigns should focus particularly on people making recruitment decisions.

Evidence of migrant non-integration

Recent research from Sweden shows that there is extensive ethnic discrimination in the labour market. In Sweden today, approximately 11.5% of the total population were born abroad. The largest groups of migrants are Finnish and other Scandinavian nationalities, followed by residents of former Yugoslavia, and Bosnian, Iraqi, Iranian, Polish, Turkish, Chilean and Lebanese people. Migrants, particularly non-European migrants, have higher unemployment rates and lower wages (see Table).

Of the two waves of immigration - the labour immigration from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and the refugee immigration since then - migrants from the latter group have had the most difficulty integrating into the Swedish labour market. However, the labour immigrants who came to Sweden years earlier are, on average, less educated than the refugee immigrants. This strongly suggests that human capital factors alone do not explain the non-integration of migrants. The gap between native Swedes and migrants remains in unemployment rates and wage income, even when various background factors are controlled.

Indices for employment rates and wage income among people aged 16-64, born abroad (employment and wage rates for native Swedes = 100)
Indices for employment rates and wage income
Year Born abroad (including Swedish citizens born abroad) Non-national
1950 - 120
1960 104 105
1967 - 110
1975 100 99
1978 98 94
1987 90 83
1992 84 74
1994 75 61
1999 76 69
2000 77 70
Wage income
Year Born abroad (including Swedish citizens born abroad) Non-national
1967 - 122
1978 100 92
1987 - 77
1992 62 50
1999 64 55

Source: Ekberg and Hammarstedt, 2002, according to Rydgren, 2004

Moreover, these differences persist for second-generation migrants or adopted children; this strongly suggests that other traits (such as skin colour or ethnicity) play a role in discrimination, in addition to the so-called ‘Sweden-specific human capital’ (such as language skills and cultural competence). It also implies that there is direct and transparent ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labour market. For those whose parents were both born in a non-European country, the unemployment risk is 11 percentage points higher than for those with two Swedish-born parents.

Three mechanisms of exclusion

Three mechanisms of exclusion are identified as particularly significant: stereotypical thinking (so-called statistical discrimination: e.g. ‘All Turks are…’); segregation of networks of native Swedes and migrants (networks are based on ethnicity); and institutional discrimination. In the latter, institutional settings have intended or unintended discriminating consequences for certain ethnic groups. These three mechanisms are interrelated in many ways, which means that a holistic approach is needed when thinking about possible solutions.

Stronger social integration, i.e. a fusion of networks of migrants and of native Swedes, is likely to reduce the power of ethnic stereotypes. The crucial policy problem that must be solved, therefore, is how to create a closer integration between different ethnic networks (which is not the same as arguing that migrants should be assimilated into native Swedish society and culture). To that end, it is argued that there should be a policy aimed at counteracting the emergence and consolidation of ethnic enclaves in urban areas.

Key role of gatekeepers

Certain key actors (such as foremen or work managers) hold ‘gatekeeper’ positions in the labour market and may discriminate against migrants in two ways:

  • by making recruitment decisions based on stereotypical, often prejudiced, beliefs about group-specific characteristics;
  • by choosing people whom they know or who are recommended by people they know (i.e. only using their own networks).

For example, a foreman in Volvo’s large car factory in Gothenburg said:

'You could put it like this, as a foreman you’ll get a lot of preconceived ideas about immigrants, and about certain immigrant groups. Because it is always the fact…that if you have had two persons of a nationality that haven’t been good, then I, as a foreman, do not want to have two new ones of the same nationality (Augustsson, 1996, p. 81, according to Rydgren, 2004).'

In other words, immigrants are treated as a homogeneous group, while native Swedes are, implicitly or explicitly, seen as a much more heterogeneous group. To address this perception, information campaigns and education about other ethnicities should, in particular, be directed towards people in gatekeeper positions, as they may discriminate against migrants, often without being aware of it.


Rydgren, J., ‘Mechanisms of exclusion: Ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labour market’, in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies , Vol. 30, 4, July 2004, pp. 697-716.

The study was conducted within a larger project (The European dilemma: Institutional patterns of ‘racial’ discrimination ), financed by the European Union’s Fifth Programme.

The entire article can be found in: IngentaConnect Mechanisms of exclusion: Ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labour market.

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