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The Immigration of Workers and Circular Migration | Sweden |

Sweden Introduction Historical Development Current Trends Immigration Policy Immigration / Circular Migration Integration Policy Citizenship Asylum and Refugees Irregular Migration Future Challenges References

The Immigration of Workers and Circular Migration

Bernd Parusel

/ 6 Minuten zu lesen

Sweden pursues an open immigration policy and actively encourages the recruitment of foreign labor. In 2008, the system of hiring foreign labor was reformed. Additionally, Parliament agreed to facilitated circular migration in 2014.

Laying of the North Stream Pipeline on Gotland. In 2008, new rules came into force concerning the immigration of workers from non-EU states. Most importantly, labor immigration has since been almost entirely dependent on the recruitment needs of Swedish employers. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Towards the end of 2008, new rules came into force concerning the immigration of workers from non-EU states. Most importantly, labor immigration has since been almost entirely dependent on the recruitment needs of Swedish employers; the controlling powers of government agencies have been restricted to a minimum, and labor immigration opportunities are open to workers of all skill levels. As compared to the previous governance of labor immigration, the Swedish Employment Agency no longer carries out economic needs tests (priority checks) to establish whether the immigration of foreign workers is economically necessary.

The Process of Hiring Foreign Labor

If employers have a vacancy, they are first obliged to advertise the vacancy publicly through the Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen) and the EU job mobility portal EURES. If there is no response, or if an employer still prefers to recruit somebody from abroad, (s)he may employ a job applicant from any country in the world. After consulting the responsible trade union about the terms of employment, Migrationsverket handles the issuing of a residence and work permit. The terms and conditions must be based on the applicable collective agreements or, in the absence of such agreements, on what is customary for the job in question. Residence and work permits are granted for the time of employment, or – in case the position is permanent – for a maximum of two years with the possibility of an extension. During the first two years, the residence permit is linked to a specific employer and a clearly defined occupation. After that, the foreign worker may change employer, but not occupation. After a total time of four years, a permanent residence permit can be granted which then allows for full access to the labor market.

Employers can recruit anybody, regardless of qualifications or skills. Thus, not only qualified migrants, but also workers with low skills or even none at all, may immigrate, if employers have the relevant vacancies. Labor migrants are given access to the same social rights as the rest of the country’s population, provided that they are likely to stay for at least one year. They may also bring close relatives, i.e. spouses or partners as well as children up to the age of 21.

Links between Labor Migration and the Asylum System

Another special feature of Swedish labor immigration policy is that the country dovetails the immigration of asylum seekers with labor migration. Asylum seekers normally have access to the labor market from the beginning of their stay in Sweden. When they are found not to be in need of protection they may apply, within two weeks from receiving a final negative decision on their asylum claim, for a residence permit for work purposes. It is issued whenever an asylum seeker has been working for at least four months before rejection and the employer guarantees that the contract continues. The type of work, and whether it is full-time or not, does not matter as long as the working conditions are in line with Swedish collective agreements and the monthly salary is at least 13,000 SEK (approx. 1,400 Euro). This possibility of "status change" was originally introduced in 2008, and further facilitated in 2014. Under the old rules, failed asylum seekers had to be employed for at least six months by the same company in order to qualify for a status change.

Controversies and Reactions

The demand-driven Swedish approach to labor immigration, which the OECD has labelled "the most open labor migration system among OECD countries", is not uncontroversial, however. There are two main lines of criticism. One main topic of public debate has been the misuse of the system by untrustworthy employers. There have been numerous reports, for example, about employers paying their immigrant workers lower wages than originally promised. There were also reports on alleged cases of employers accepting money from applicants for giving them a job and thus making it possible for them to receive a residence permit in Sweden. In May 2013, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) published an extensive report, documenting such issues. Another frequent criticism is that a substantial share of labor immigration takes places in sectors where there is no shortage of domestic labor.

Reacting to such criticism, the Migrationsverket iteratively introduced stricter requirements for the recruitment of foreign workers to certain industrial branches. Since 2012, businesses in the cleaning, hotel and restaurant, service, construction, staffing, commerce, agriculture and forestry, and automobile repair sectors, as well as all new enterprises, have to prove ex ante that they can actually pay regular salaries during the foreseen employment periods. In 2014, the Parliament passed an amendment to the Aliens Act, making it possible for the Migration Agency to carry out post-arrival checks on employers to verify whether admitted third-country nationals really start working, and whether businesses comply with the terms offered. To compensate for these additional checks, trustworthy employers that frequently hire job-seekers from third countries can now get certified, which means that the Migration Agency ensures a quick processing of applications for residence permits. Electronic applications from foreign workers with a job offer from a certified employer are now often decided upon within five days.

Table 2 displays the ten main occupational categories among incoming workers from third countries in 2014, as compared to 2013. It shows that, overall, the number of immigrating workers in occupations requiring a high level of skills has tended to increase modestly, while the number of third-country nationals coming to work in low-skill jobs (such as "helpers in restaurants" and "helpers and cleaners") has decreased substantially. This can be seen as a result of the stricter requirements mentioned above.

Table 2: Work permits granted to workers from abroad, 2013 and 2014

(Top-10 occupational categories)

*Comment: Please note that before 2014, computing professionals and IT architects, system analysts and test managers were regarded as the same occupational category.
Employment category 2013 2014
Agricultural, fishery and related laborers5,9152,885
Computing professionals3,477*2,525
IT architects, system analysts and test managers*903
Housekeeping and restaurant service workers830666
Architects, engineers and related professionals 415424
Helpers in restaurants470364
Physical and engineering science technicians267335
Helpers and cleaners397208
Business professionals190199
Personal care and related workers282189
Total (all occupations, excluding family members of labor migrants)15,357 12,094

Apart from this system for labor immigration, Sweden also receives self-employed people (business owners) on relatively generous terms. The country also has an interesting policy regarding circular migration.

Approaches to Circular Migration

In 2009, the government appointed an independent parliamentary committee to examine the connection between circular migration and development. The final report of the committee, published in 2011, included several proposals, including allowing longer periods of absence from Sweden without the loss of residency, providing public support to diaspora groups and their development-related projects in other countries, establishing a website enabling migrants to compare fees for remittances back to their home countries, and achieving better coherence between migration and development strategies. One of the outcomes of the report was a government bill, which was enacted by Parliament in 2014 and aims at facilitating circular mobility to and from Sweden. Since then, a permanent residence permit is only revoked when a migrant stays outside Sweden for two years or more, and labor immigrants with temporary residence permits are allowed to spend certain periods of time outside Sweden and still be able to qualify for a permanent residence permit seven years after their first entry to Sweden. With this reform, Sweden made once again clear that it does not trust "managed" policies for circular migration, which, for example, allow labor migrants to stay for a predetermined period of time only. Instead, from the Swedish perspective, the migrants themselves shall be able to decide. If they want to leave and come back, they may do so; if they want to stay, that is also an option.

Sweden's Immigrant Population

Figure 2: Foreign-born residents in Sweden, 1970-2014. Source: Statistiska Centralbyrån (Statistics Sweden) (2014), p. 133 and Statistiska Centralbyrån [Statistics Sweden] (2015), Table Externer Link: Utrikes födda efter födelseland och invandringsår 31 december 2014 (online publication). (© bpb)

Today (2015), around 1,603,551 people, or 16.5 percent of the Swedish population, were born abroad. A large number of them have come from neighboring Nordic countries. However, the number of immigrants from other European countries, Africa and Asia has recently grown significantly (see Figure 2). In 1970, the proportion of people born abroad in relation to the total population was just over one third of what it is today.

Most immigrants live in and around the cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, with smaller numbers in Örebro, Uppsala, Jönköping, Kalmar and Södertälje. By contrast, the proportion of immigrants on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, as well as in the northwestern and northern provinces of Sweden, is relatively small, although there are immigrants and refugees even in the extreme north, often running pizzerias or kiosks.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile Sweden.



  1. Swedish Migration Board (2013), p. 11.

  2. For further information on "status changes" from asylum to immigration, see Parusel (2015) and Parusel (2014).

  3. OECD (2011), p. 11.

  4. LO (2013).

  5. Cf. Bevelander et al. (2014).

  6. For more information on the conditions of entry and stay for self-employed people, see Swedish Migration Agency (2015c).

  7. SOU (2011a).

  8. Parusel (2015), pp. 149f.

  9. Statistiska Centralbyrån (2014), p. 113.


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Dr. Bernd Parusel is a political scientist and migration and asylum expert. He works for the European Migration Network (EMN) at the Swedish Migration Agency and as a research officer at the Swedish Migration Studies Delegation (DELMI) in Stockholm. Email: E-Mail Link: