Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sweden’s ancient Uppsala Dom Kirke (Cathedral), the center of the venerable State Church, is empty while less than a mile away stands a packed mosque frequented by mainly Middle Eastern immigrants, but also by a surprising number of converted ethnic Swedes.

Thirty years ago, being Swedish generally meant to be a socialist, Lutheran, ethnic Swede. Today, this image is rapidly changing. Islamic small business owners from the Middle East or former Yugoslavia represent the fastest growing socioeconomic segment.

As is true in most European countries, Sweden’s aging population requires a substantial work force to pay for its generous state-mandated pension and medical retirement program. Despite Sweden’s longstanding efforts to provide economic incentives for Swedish women to bear more children, the number of births has fallen short.

Immigrant labor is a convenient substitute for a shortage for native workers. Unlike the United States, where almost all legal immigrants are expected to immediately work upon arrival, Swedish immigrants face numerous legal and cultural obstacles in obtaining employment.

If the trade unions had their way, immigrants would remain jobless. Union political pressure has imposed legal obstacles to immigrant employment. Getting a job is complicated and expensive for immigrants. The barriers are aimed to support the higher union wages that overwhelmingly dominate the work force. With nearly 90 percent of regular labor unionized (compared to about 12 percent in the U.S.), Sweden has the world’s most unionized labor force. Few Swedes want to admit it, but often immigrants resort to black market jobs.

Immigrants, in the United States or in Sweden or anywhere else, are almost universally willing to work longer hours for less pay under worse conditions and are less likely to claim disabilities or collect sick pay. They are unpopular with those they displace.

As happens elsewhere, nonethnic workers are often ignored when applying for jobs. “The best thing an immigrant can do is to take a Swedish name,” says Ugandan-born Leo Sjolin, who escaped civil strife in Africa more than 15 years ago. After arriving in Uppsala, Mr. Sjolin followed his mother’s advice and adopted a Swedish name. “If they [ethnic Swedish employers] see an immigrant’s name they will ignore the job application.”

Mr. Sjolin considers himself fortunate because he holds a regular job, has a Swedish wife and truly feels at home in Sweden. He attributes his success to his willingness to work long and often odd hours as a night shift hotel manager.

The Swedish welfare state ensures a minimal standard of living for indefinite periods. Therefore, many immigrants accept the union stance and take their time finding work. Economic surveys by the Swedish Ministry of Finance show long-term unemployment for immigrants remain much higher under any circumstance.

“We have more Ph.D.s and engineers driving taxis in Stockholm than any other place in the world,” says Roger Gay, a rare American immigrant. “They [immigrants with technical skills] cannot easily get regular jobs.”

Combined with resistance from employers to hire, instead of filling in labor force gaps to fund the aging population’s retirement, these immigrants are essentially not allowed to contribute. The strains of immigrant welfare on the social system has prompted Moderate Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s new government to consider adjusting longstanding policies to more efficiently integrate talented and industrious immigrants.

Sweden’s European Union membership ensures a continued legal mandate that forces economic and cultural adjustments away from traditions. The immigrants are the driving agent of cultural and economic change. Practical Swedes have converted many local Folk Husets, community centers that in the past served to culturally indoctrinate Swedes into the following the socialist way of life, into offices for small businesses or community meeting centers for immigrants and nontraditional social groups.

The bridge to Denmark at the southern tip of Sweden symbolizes a newly connected nation. Each day, thousands of cars and trucks cross from Continental Europe and weaken the semi-isolation that kept Sweden politically neutral for almost 200 years. Lund and Malmo across from Copenhagen are inundated daily with foreign people, goods and ideas. Profound changes prominent at the Swedish border are making their way to the heartland.

For all the problems Americans face with immigration, the absence of strong trade unions and social benefits give the United States a marked advantage to adjusting to these globalization forces. Swedish state socialism hinders a flexible response to the onslaught of European Union enforced immigration that potentially represents the greatest social and economic transformation for Northern Europe since the arrival of Christianity.


Mr. Baker teaches Economics at Rollins College and recently received a grant from the Swedish government to research changes in economic policies in Stockholm.

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