New salary law fuels concerns over immigration challenges

A new law that requires incoming foreign workers to earn salaries above a minimum threshold in order to qualify for a residence permit has added to wider doubts about the Swedish government’s commitment to attracting and retaining international doctoral students and young researchers.

In an open letter to Minister for Migration Maria Malmer Stenergard dated 31 October, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (SACO), which is comprised of 21 affiliated unions with a total membership of 960,000 members, said the government’s demand for a salary threshold of SEK27,360 (US$2,500) per month (80% of the median salary) will hurt Sweden’s competitiveness, welfare and research.

The letter comes against the backdrop of an opinion piece by Sanna Wolk, president of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), published in Dagens industri on 23 October which lists several instances of qualified people leaving Sweden because of immigration challenges.

According to Wolk, one year after the signing of the Tidö Agreement, there has been no indication that the government intends to fulfil its undertaking to ensure that researchers, doctoral students and other international students are not discouraged from coming to Sweden for work or studies by the government’s new migration policy.

“One year into the present government, nothing is happening to strengthen Swedish research and Sweden as a research nation. Why will the government not attract international doctoral students and researchers when they are so important for Swedish universities and business?” Wolk wrote.

Government improvement plan

Responding to Wolk’s criticisms via Dagens industri on 31 October, Higher Education Minister Mats Persson denied that the government was disinterested in attracting high-level research skills and said it was currently working to improve the preconditions for doctorate candidates and researchers to work in Sweden.

“Of those starting their doctorate studies in 2022, 41% were foreign students. Foreign doctoral students are hence decisive for Swedish academy, research and business,” he said.

“The government is therefore now taking actions against so-called competence expulsions, that is, highly qualified workers who by mistake or wrongly constructed legislation must leave the country. Neither the government, nor the academy, nor the business sector wants this to happen,” Persson said.

However, the salary threshold or ‘subsistence requirement’ that came into effect on 1 November has not helped to convince professional associations that this commitment from the government is real.

“Labour immigration is not a problem, but on the contrary is very important for Sweden's competitiveness and welfare,” reads the letter (in Swedish) signed by the heads of all 21 SACO union members.

“The wage threshold that comes into force on 1 November for labour immigrants is an obstacle at a time when there is a need for increased mobility in general between countries, but not least from other countries into the Swedish labour market.

“In order for Swedish companies to be competitive and for the welfare sector to secure its supply of skills, it must be possible to find the right skills from other countries as well. The same applies to higher education and research,” it states.

SACO says its scepticism about wage thresholds in law or regulation is not only principled. “It will be very much a practical problem in the labour market. Within the highly qualified workforce organised by SACO’s member unions, there are professional groups that are around or just above the salary threshold.

“There is also the risk that a salary threshold in law or regulation will be too low or too high. A low threshold means that labour immigrants risk a lower wage than other workers. A high threshold makes it difficult for employers to recruit staff, especially in certain industries.

“It is simply not possible to find a salary threshold that suits everyone. The provisions of the industry agreements are much more suitable with flexible and adapted solutions in a changing labour market,” states SACO.

Making Sweden less attractive to certain groups

Dr Bernd Parusel, senior researcher in political science at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, an expert on migration, told University World News the new salary threshold was motivated by government’s concern to stop labour immigration into low-skilled jobs and instead focus on attracting highly qualified workers with high salaries.

“People who come to Sweden from non-EU countries to study or conduct research, and who have permits for these purposes, will not be affected,” he said. “Those who want to stay in Sweden after their studies or research can stay for some time and look for work. If they then want to get a new permit for working, they will need a job with a salary above the threshold.

“The change of the salary threshold can also affect former students who have a work permit now and want to get it extended. If they have jobs with lower salaries, they will have to get a higher salary and possibly have to change jobs for that, or they will have to leave Sweden.

“It is clear to me that the new threshold will change the shape of labour immigration to Sweden, also in quantitative terms. Sweden is making itself less accessible and less attractive for certain groups,” he added.

Possible impacts on students

Topias Tolonen, representing the doctoral student committee of the Swedish National Union of Students, told University World News the minimum wage requirement for a working visa was “problematic in principle”.

Tolonen stated: “While doctoral students in Sweden are generally employed, the general residence permit for doctoral students is the residence permit for higher education. We understand that this means that the decision of the government does not directly affect doctoral students in Sweden.

“In addition, the median salary for a doctoral student in Sweden is SEK31,700 (3/2023), and the starting salary is often around SEK28 000. We are not certain whether some starting salaries for doctoral students in Sweden are below the threshold imposed by the government (SEK27,360).

“If the residence permits for doctoral students in future fall under the working visa, doctoral students would face difficulties with the newly imposed minimum wage if the wages of doctoral students were to rise more slowly than the median wage, as many starting wages are within the vicinity of the threshold.”

Tolonen said the decision was even more worrying since it “creates uncertainty and possible limitations” when a doctoral student goes on to participate in the job market after defending their thesis.

“Many positions inside and outside academia fail to meet the imposed minimum wage for new graduates, and the effect is heightened for part-time jobs. In addition, this phenomenon is biased towards fields where highly skilled workers are needed but salaries are not generally high (for example, humanities).

“For the reasons mentioned above the decision is worrying for doctoral students even though the effects affect them most after the defence of their thesis,” he explained.

In addition, he said that doctoral students are facing problems regarding migration and mobility. These include the “painfully long” handling times of the migration agency.

“When a doctoral student renews their residence permit, [the process] effectively paralyses research in certain areas [as] the researcher is not able to leave Sweden to do fieldwork, gather data, or discuss results in international conferences. The decision to impose a minimum wage creates further bureaucracy and signals mistrust against workers that wish to stay in Sweden,” he said.

Robert Andersson, chief negotiator at SULF, confirmed that the new rules regarding the minimum salary will not directly affect an individual that applies for a residence permit for research or studies (including doctoral studies).

“That is because those residence permits are under a different type of regulation (that is also under an EU-directive).

“According to the directive it is enough that the applicant has sufficient money and does not have to use the social welfare system in the member state. It is also said that incomes (or savings) other than those from employment should be considered as stipends.

“Thus, it is not possible for a member state to include requirements for minimum income that would violate the directive,” he said.

However, Andersson said that the new rules could affect academics and researchers in the following circumstances: if they for some reason were not able to get a residence permit for research or studies, or if after some time at the university they then had to apply for a work permit, or if they for some reason had to take a job that did not require high qualifications or was part-time.

Opposition to ‘informers act’

Adding fuel to the debate around skilled immigration is a proposed ‘informers act’ that will make it obligatory for public officials to inform authorities if they suspect a person of not having a valid residence permit.

The proposal has met with severe criticism from universities and labour unions in particular.

Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University Professor Anders Hagfeldt wrote on his university blog page under a headline “No place for informers in academia” that the proposal had caused “widespread indignation”.

“Many public employees in Sweden interpret the proposal to mean that they will be forced to take on police roles that they neither can, wish to nor should play.

“As vice-chancellor, I wish to take a firm stand against the proposal. No one at our university must be called upon to suspect or to inform against anyone. For us in academia, the very thought of questioning people’s right to join in the academic conversation is alien. It is against our basic principles, against our very being,” he wrote.