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26th Jun 2019

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Sweden must put refugee women into work, OECD says

  • Refugee woman learning Swedish. (Photo: PROEDUCTUS BILDBANK)

Some 163,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden last year, the largest inflow of asylum seekers ever recorded in an OECD country. Another 100,000 came in 2013 and 2014.

The record figures have raised questions about Sweden’s ability to put refugees into work.

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The latest Eurostat figures from February 2016, show Sweden’s unemployment was 7 percent, below the EU average of 8.9 percent.

But OECD figures published last week show that Sweden has one of the largest employment gaps between natives and foreign-born people of all OECD countries.

Only half of immigrants have a job after seven years in the country, the Swedish minister for employment, Ylva Johansson, recently stated.

Nonetheless, the OECD director for employment, labour and social affairs, Stefano Scarpetta, said that Sweden is a model of integration that inspires other countries, such as his own Italy.

“Despite the challenges it is facing, Sweden has been at the forefront of integration,” he told journalists during a visit to Stockholm on Friday (13 May).

“Sweden is better equipped than many other countries to integrate refugees, given its strong economy and tradition of welcoming immigrants.”

Scarpetta explained that the employment gap is partly caused by the high level of employment in Sweden. It is particularly large when it comes to the employment of women, as Sweden has one of the highest rates of female employment in the world.

He admitted, however, that the influx was testing the efficiency of the reception and integration system.

More support to women and teenagers

Scarpetta was in Stockholm to present an OECD report on integration of immigrants. While giving Sweden a good grade overall, the report pointed out areas where more needs to be done.

The first lesson is that refugees suffer from Sweden’s housing shortage. This is particularly troubling as several parts of the integration programme only kick in when the refugee has an address.

As Swedish television revealed last year, the difficulty of finding a home has caused a black market where refugees pay to be registered at someone else’s address. In one case, 67 people were registered at a single address.

That is one reason the OECD recommends integration activities to start as soon as possible after a person lodges an asylum claim. Many refugees start taking Swedish classes only after receiving their residence permits. With the spike of arrivals, those decisions can take over a year to arrive.

Another problem lies in the Swedish labour market, one of the most competitive markets in the world. 95 percent of jobs require upper secondary education.

"Over one third of those who received refugee status in Sweden last year hold lower skills than that," Scarpetta said.

They may need additional support after completing the standard, two-year introduction programme, he argued.

Children constitute another highly sensitive group. Of the 163,000 who came last year, 70,000 were minors. Half of them came without a parent.

OECD data show that those who come before the age of 15 generally fare well. But those who come as older teenagers face serious problems. Many drop out, sometimes driven by the desire to start work as soon as possible and send money home to their families.

Adults with a higher education, constituting roughly a third of the refugees, also struggle to find jobs.

"Many of them face the challenge of translating their skills and experiences into what employers can recognise and appreciate," Scarpetta said, urging Sweden to speed up the system for recognition of foreign qualifications, especially in the healthcare sector.

'Everyday jobs' and lower wages for refugees

Several reports have recently warned of the challenges refugees pose to the Swedish labour market and welfare at large.

The Fiscal Policy Council, a government agency that provides an independent evaluation of the government's fiscal policy, warned that the failure to integrate refugees could cause "severe social problems" if 25 to 35 percent of the population remain off the labour market.

The Public Employment Service (PES) was concerned about a growing dichotomy of the labour market, where foreign-born people continue struggling to find a job despite the strong economic growth. PES expects the foreign-born to constitute 60 percent of the unemployed that seek its services in 2017, compared to 50 percent 2015.

All opposition parties except the far-right Swedish Democrats have suggested lowering the thresholds to the labour market by introducing "simple" jobs and lower entry-level wages for refugees.

Those "simple" or "everyday" jobs, as they are called, could consist of helping customers to find their way around the hardware store, run errands, carry luggage in hotels, or rake leaves in people's gardens. Proponents claim there could be a demand for such services. They appeal to trade unions to agree to lower wages for those that arrived recently to Sweden.

But the OECD has not endorsed the idea of cutting salaries for refugees.

“That would lower salaries also for other Swedes,” Scarpetta said. He added that employers can already employ immigrants at a discount price. But existing initiatives to subsidise wages “tend to be too complex and the burdensome administration has limited uptake”.

Sweden's minister of employment, Ylva Johansson of the Social Democratic party, welcomed the review and said refugees were essential to help Sweden solve the problem of an aging population.

The Swedish report was the first in a series on the integration of migrants in OECD countries.

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