Sweden will not grow by ‘frightening away talent from other countries’

The former leader of Sweden's Moderate Party has warned against "frightening away top talent from other countries" by driving a "historically restrictive" migration policy and making it more difficult for researchers to get visas.

Sweden will not grow by 'frightening away talent from other countries'
Anna Kindberg Batra, , the Moderate party's former leader said every government she had been a part of had driven pro-growth policies. Photo: TT

Anna Kinberg Batra, who led the party from 2015 to 2017, wrote in the Dagens Industri newspaper that the liberal labour migration reforms that the Moderate Party government brought in back in 2008 had been a “growth-friendly reform” which “strengthened Sweden on the international talent market”. 

Given that the article comes only three days to go before parliament is set to vote on significantly increasing the minimum salary for a work permit, undoing one of the key planks of those 2008 reforms, this is an implicit criticism of the new government’s political programme. 

Kinberg Batra also criticised other changes to labour migration rules, noting that a change in rules for researchers from other countries, which came into force on November 1st, means that researchers from countries like the US now have to physically apply for a research visa, whereas before they could handle the process digitally.

The former process, she stressed, demanded “less time, energy, and money”. 

People with foreign backgrounds have been central to Sweden’s growth in recent years, she argued, mentioning two winners of this year’s “New Builder of the Year” award. 

Zaid Saeed won the award for his quantum computing start-up Scallinq, a spin-off from his work as a physics professor at Chalmers University of Technology. Rim Alexandra Halfya, meanwhile won the award for starting the building technology company Combify together with Alaa Alshawa, who came to Sweden from Syria in 2015. 

Sweden, she said, needed more people like this, “who don’t wait to receive a job, but go and create one for themselves instead”. 

All the previous governments she had played a part in had sought to find ways to make Sweden a more productive, more efficient, more dynamic economy, she added. The 2006 government led by Fredrik Reinfeldt liberalised labour migration laws, among other measures, even though it had also had to deal with the financial crisis.

The government led by Carl Bildt from 1991-1994 also had to deal with an economic crisis, but Kinberg Batra wrote that as a young political advisor, she helped launch ideas “every week” to “rebuild Sweden as a growth-driven and business-friendly nation with a strong and growing economy”. 

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EXPLAINED: Sweden’s plans for a new work permit system for high-skilled labour

Sweden's Migration Agency will at the end of this year launch a new international recruitment organisation, with separate units devoted to highly qualified work permit applicants. Here's what we know so far.

EXPLAINED: Sweden's plans for a new work permit system for high-skilled labour

Why is Sweden’s Migration Agency scrapping its old system for highly qualified labour? 

Mainly because work permits for highly qualified labour are taking too long to process. 

“We want Sweden to be competitive and to be able to attract talented people. That means making it simple to apply for work permits and for the process to go quickly,” Sweden’s Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard said at a press conference announcing the system. 

“We’ve unfortunately been dragged down by long processing times which have sometimes affected companies’ ability to compete.” 

The major projects currently being established in Norrland as part of Sweden’s green industrial transition also require international recruitment on a new scale, Ribbenvik added. 

“It’s battery companies, new steel plants, and not just in Norrland,” he said. “These are very important new projects for Sweden, and they very often require labour from third countries.”

The so-called certified process, brought in back in 2011 by the Moderate-led Alliance government to reduce the then 12-month wait for work permits for big companies, has also stopped working. 

When it started only 20 companies were certified, most of them big employers like Volvo or Ericsson, now there are 640 companies, with many others accessing the process through agents such as EY. 

Ribbenvik said that of the 104,000 work permit related cases the agency received last year, 40 percent had come through the certification system, with 20 percent coming from industry sectors deemed as “high risk” by the agency. 

What’s the background to the decision? 

Sweden’s new government in December instructed the Migration Agency in 2023 to “promote highly qualified labour immigration to Sweden” as one of the core tasks given to it in its instructions for the year, requesting the agency to report back on the measures it was taking by September 4th. 

In an interview with the Sweden in Focus podcast, Migration Agency Director General Mikael Ribbenvik said that he had lobbied the government behind the scenes to task him with this, as it would allow him to carry out root and branch reform.  

“I said to the government, ‘if this is what you want, be clear and task us with promoting that [highly skilled] segment’, and they did, and I’m very happy about that,” he said.

How is the system going to be changed? 

The certified system is going to be phased out, probably by the end of the year. 

Instead, all work permit applications to bring highly qualified labour to Sweden, regardless of whether the company is certified or not, will be handled by new “international recruitment units”, or enheter för internationell rekrytering. 

These will not only process cases but will also include ‘service teams’, who will work closely with employers and businesses in the run-up to applications being submitted, so that they are complete. 

“We are going to provide a better service,” Ribbenvik said. “We are going to be focused on the needs of business. We are going to communicate better on these issues together with business, and we are going to have special service teams which are going to support businesses and employees in establishing people in the country.”

The general idea is to shift attention from the employee applying for a permit to the Swedish businesses seeking to recruit them, and to take some of the jobs that agents such as EY or major companies’ in-house HR departments have carried out as part of the certified process inside the Migration Agency. 

“We’ve been very focused on the individual and we’ve seen businesses a little bit as something external,” Ribbenvik said. “And that’s something we want to reverse in our service, to give services to these companies so they can have an overall picture of the [people being recruited for] their new project.”

The Migration Agency says it will aim to handle “complete” applications to bring highly qualified labour to Sweden within 30 days.

Although this is lower than the 10 days for new applications and 20 days for renewals agreed under the certified process, Ribbenvik said it was “an improvement” on current actual handling times. 

“Our impression from discussions with businesses is that this is roughly equivalent to how quickly they need a decision,” he added. 

Which roles will be covered by the new international recruitment units? 

The Migration Agency plans to divide work permit applications into four categories, ranked from A-D, of which only the first, Category A, will be handled by the new international recruitment units and encompassed by the 30 day target. 

Category A applications will be those already classified as “highly qualified” under the Standard for Swedish Classification of Occupations (SSYK), and will include leadership roles, roles requiring higher university education, and roles requiring university education or equivalent.  In total, this covers 238 separate roles in the SSYK system.

How will the system treat applications in the other three categories? 

Category B. All applications for work permits in occupations with special rules will be grouped in Category B. These will include seasonal work such as berry pickers, country transfers within multinational companies, permits concerning holders of the EU Blue Card, artists, researchers, athletes/coaches, au-pairs, trainees, youth exchanges, and volunteers.

This category will also include people seeking a work permit to come to Sweden to start their own business, and (if it is not phased out beforehand) applications under the so-called spårbyte, or “track change system”, which allows people who have originally applied for asylum to apply for a work permit from within Sweden. 

Category D. This category will include work permit applications within industries that the Migration Agency sees as at a higher risk of abuse and so requiring more in-depth monitoring and investigation. These include cleaning, construction, and the hotel and restaurant industry. “I’m not saying all the companies in these branches have problems. There are decent companies, but the risk is greater,” Ribbenvik said at the press conference. 

Category C. This category will cover all other applications, so those which are neither for high qualified labour, nor in a high-risk industry, nor covered by special rules.

At the press conference, Ribbenvik stressed that Category C applications would also have access to the new service teams. 

“It’s important to understand that for many businesses it’s not just about people with university degrees,” he said. “If you’re setting up something big, you need all sorts of job descriptions, both high and low skilled, and even if we aren’t going to make any promises of 30 days for these people, we will work very closely with those setting up big projects in Sweden through these service teams.” 

So what happens next? 

The Migration Agency on May 12th made what it called an inriktningsbeslut, a position paper setting out its intentions.

It will now set up working groups with businesses to discuss details of how the new system will work, before Ribbenvik’s replacement announces the final plans on September 4th. 

“We are early now and what we want to do is work with the partners in the labour market, so we can understand the need to make corrections if there are things we have misunderstood,” Ribbenvik said.