Swedish 'Revolution' in Labour Immigration Policy

Published 21 December 2015 / By Frida Boräng & Lucie Cerna

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While it is well known that Sweden for a long time has been one of the countries in Europe accepting the largest numbers of refugees, it is perhaps less known that Sweden used to be one of the most restrictive labour immigration countries. For several decades, labour immigration was not planned on a large scale and was not used as remedy for problems of the economy. This was, however, drastically changed in December 2008 when a new immigration law came into force which made immigration policy more employer-driven and turned Sweden into one of the most open labour immigration countries in the OECD. These changes were considered as a ‘slight revolution’ by central policy actors. Why did one of the most restrictive labour immigration countries suddenly become one of the most liberal ones? In our working paper, we explore the reasons for this drastic change.

We need to take a step back and ask which factors kept labour migration so restrictive, even in times of severe labour shortages. Labour market institutions and their consequences in terms of power relations on the labour market play an important role. These factors influence the preferences, strategies and chances of success for various policy actors – including political parties. Swedish unions have long been extremely strong, both in terms of membership and their position in society. At its peak in 1985, Swedish union density reached 85 percent and the strong corporatist arrangements between employees, employers and the state guaranteed the unions significant influence over policy decisions and implementation. Moreover, unions were able to form strong alliances around labour immigration - between blue-collar and white-collar unions as well as between unions, political parties and government agencies. This resulted in a very privileged position for unions in migration policy-making, stemming both from the corporatist setting and its alliances with other influential actors. In fact, Swedish unions for long enjoyed de facto veto power over labour immigration.

Early on, unions adopted the view that immigrants should enjoy the same standards as Swedes in terms of housing, education and social benefits. Moreover, immigrant workers were to have equal working and wage conditions as native workers, and in the case of unemployment, foreign workers were to enjoy the same unemployment benefits as all other union members. In addition, the blue-collar union confederation LO demanded – and forced the employers to accept – mandatory union membership for immigrant workers. By demanding wages, conditions and social rights for foreign workers equal to those of native workers, unions wanted to make sure that wages and conditions would not be undercut. Since unions and their coalition partners de facto controlled labour migration policy, there was little scope for other actors to shape policies in this domain, and the restrictive policy was not seriously challenged for several decades.

Union power over migration policy in Sweden was based on a number of factors: high union density rates, corporatist institutions, and unions’ ability to form strong alliances around the issue of labour migration. Over the last decades, however, union strength has been weakened in all three respects. While still high in a comparative perspective, union density has fallen dramatically. The system of interest organisations being represented as board members in public agencies was abolished in 1991, after that the employers’ confederation (SAF) unilaterally decided to withdraw from the system. In addition, the alliance around the labour migration issue within the union movement had weakened.

This opened up opportunities for other actors to formulate policy alternatives and to reform policy. Employers and center-right parties became more active and adopted more liberal policy positions than previously. This process culminated with the 2008 introduction of a new labour migration law which made immigration policy more employer-driven and turned Sweden into one of the most open OECD countries.