Thursday, March 27, 2008

Work Immigration

Construction WorkThere's some interesting developments on work immigration in Sweden. The current government, together with the Green Party, is proposing that anybody, from anywhere, can automatically get a two year work permit if they have employment from a Swedish company. The requirements are that the job be properly advertised within the EU as well and that the job be full-time and come with the union-agreed salary, benefits, job security and all other conditions Swedish employees already get. The two year work permit would be extended another two years if they're still employed, and permanent work residency be granted if they're still employed after four years. Note that especially the benefit requirement - which the unions will be sure to enforce fiercely - really precludes the use of this as a way to dump salaries or import low-wage manual work; taking someone in from abroad will be more expensive than hiring a Swedish resident.

I find this very interesting. First, it acknowledges a reality that is often forgotten in all the frightened rhetoric about immigration: Most people do not want to leave their friends and relatives and move to a different city, never mind a different country - even if it might mean a better job, higher salary and better social safety net. When you leave your friends, relatives and co-workers, you're leaving your entire social and work network behind, and it's through those networks that most people find new jobs, work-related contacts and so on. Leaving that resource behind can often be an economic as well as social net loss even with a better job as incitement. A frequent complaint among expatriate workers is that their career suffers from the lack of networking and face time with people in their organization. It is, I think, not a coincidence that academics are one of the most mobile workforces in the world and also people with famously wide-ranging networks.
It's been a few years now since a number of former communist east-European countries joined the EU and the free labour market. And contrary to many people's fears and expectations, we did not get a massive influx of poor Poles, Slovaks or Romanians eager to take advantage of Sweden's labour market and social safety nets. In fact, it didn't amount to more than a trickle, and those that have come have been people we've in short supply of. Unless driven to it by destitution, severe persecution or violence, most people would just rather stay where they are. People willing to relocate to a different country (like me) are outliers, the exception to the rule. People willing to do so not just for a few years but perhaps for good are even rarer.

Second, this acknowledges that skilled people are a valuable resource, not a liability, and it's a resource that's growing scarcer as more societies climb the economic ladder. If you have the skills - academic, administrative or artisanal - to merit the attention of a foreign company despite the extra costs, hassle and uncertainty, then you're the kind of person to be in demand in many places in the world. As Japanese politicians and companies are coming to realize, a lack of skilled workers is deleterious to a society in the long run. Societies are increasingly in competition over such people and the last thing you want to do is discourage them from coming. Most will want to stay in their own home country, not relocate to some distant place with a foreign culture and different language. The problem is not to stem the flow of skilled immigrants as some people seem to believe, but to convince enough of them to come at all, open borders or not.

A welcome secondary effect is that the handling of refugees in Sweden - a clunky, inefficient and unfair system criticised from all political camps - will improve. Today the system is rather perversely set up so that people wait for years to find out if they will be granted refugee status or not, years in which they are not allowed to work. They have literally no choice but to live on public money since they are forbidden by law from supporting themselves - which of course leads to withering criticism from the far right and feeds xenophobic hatred of foreigners living on the public dole. And when a decision can take years, you have refugee families put down roots in Sweden, with new friends and relatives and with children growing up culturally Swedish rather than their ethnic origin. There are occasional cases where children born in Sweden, who speak only Swedish, are being deported with the rest of the family to a country they have never seen. This way, refugees can seek and find employment in Sweden, support themselves and avoid some of the alienation and destructive passivity of enforced non-work. And if they find a permanent job, then the refugee status question becomes moot as they'll get a work permit instead.

A last comment on the political ramifications: The proposition comes from the ruling coalition and from the Green Party together. The current opposition (way ahead in the polls by the way) is the Social Democrats, Sweden's largest party and traditionally the party in power; the Green Party; and the Communists. The last two are small, but there is no realistic way for the Social Democrats to regain a majority without the Green Party - the Communists are too small, and their recent backtracking into dogmatism makes them politically unsavoury to include in a coalition anyway. It means the current proposition has a majority in parliament, and barring a major upheaval the proposition will have a majority for preserving it no matter how the next election turns out. It looks like we're getting an immigration policy in line with reality at last. I wonder when Japan will draw some of the same conclusions.

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