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‘The talk about marginalisation gives a skewed picture’

There is a lot of talk in the Swedish public debate about stopping the marginalisation of people with immigrant background in the labour market. Paulina de los Reyes, professor of economic history at Stockholm University, argues that the discussion has the wrong focus.
‘Instead, the focus should be on the conditions in the labour market, as people seem to be experiencing increasing levels of stress, instability, intimidation, violence and exclusion from the social safety net in the workplace.’


One important challenge for the gender equality ministers in the Nordic countries is to help migrant women enter the labour market. The employment rate, as well as the importance of having as many immigrants as possible enter the labour market, are recurring topics in the public debate. Paulina de los Reyes has carried out studies dealing with gender and ethnicity in the labour market. She says that we are seeing a trend where the conditions in the labour market are becoming increasingly fragmented. Those who suffer the most from this development are the people who are considered not to belong to the ‘ideal’ workforce.

Paulina de los Reyes

‘The fragmentation in the labour market has been increasing since the 1990s. Today’s young people barely know that paid holiday is a right. There is something called text message employment, which is based on the idea that you must be available around the clock and show up for work whenever you receive a text message. And if we look at the people who have these jobs, we see a clear pattern in terms of age, gender and immigrant background.’

Paulina de los Reyes argues that the working conditions and the work environment can vary significantly even within one and the same workplace. She mentions her own employer, Stockholm University, as an example of this. Although a fairly large proportion of the teaching staff at Stockholm University hold permanent, salaried positions, quite a few instead have temporary contracts, work on project basis and/or are paid hourly. And some occupational groups at the University, such as the cleaning staff, work under entirely different conditions as they are technically employed by an external company that the University has contracted for cleaning services.

Migrants receive the least attractive jobs

‘That firm has its own rules. Although the cleaners work at the University, how many of them are covered by a collective agreement? Your formal employment conditions affect the degree to which you can voice your opinion and work to achieve change. They also affect your life outside of work, like whether you will be able to get a housing contract, have children, go on holiday or have a decent pension when you get old,’ says Paulina de los Reyes.

The fact that migrants receive the least attractive jobs in the Nordic labour markets is no coincidence. Rather, there is a long tradition of this division, according to the professor. The labour immigration began earlier in Sweden than in the other Nordic countries. Sweden was the only country that did not participate in wars, which kept the infrastructure intact and allowed Swedish companies to expand rapidly. However, few people know that, until 1955, the labour migration to Sweden consisted primarily of women from other Nordic countries.

‘At that time, there were more female migrants than Swedish women in the Swedish labour market. This can probably be attributed to Swedish women having important tasks to manage at home, for example at family farms,’ says Paulina de los Reyes.

When Swedish women eventually entered the labour market, they found work mainly in the public sector, where part-time work was common. Initially, there was a big difference in employment rate between migrant women who worked in manufacturing and Swedish women who worked in the public sector.

‘In the 1970s, this gap vanished. A series of reforms improved the ability of Swedish women to work outside the home. For example, joint taxation was eliminated and childcare services became widely available,’ says Paulina de los Reyes.

Working part time

The 1970s also saw important changes in the labour market, which made a great deal of Swedish manufacturing disappear abroad. According to Paulina de los Reyes, people with immigrant background served as a lubricant in the industrial transition. Immigrants have often been employed in industrial sectors that ended up leaving the country. The textile industry is one example.

‘The Swedish model has been based on women working part time and migrants acting as a lubricant. Agreements between capital and labour have favoured some groups but weakened others. The decisions have been made by employer organisations and trade unions, where a white male elite has owned the power,’ she says.

According to Paulina de los Reyes, it has been important to Swedish trade unions ever since the 1950s to avoid having a first- and a second-class team in the labour market. Unlike other European countries, Sweden has until now not had formal rules that give different rights to natives and foreign-born people, for example in the form of a guest worker system (as in Germany). Informally, however, it has happened anyway: today the Swedish labour market is both gender segregated and ethnically divided.

‘The talk about marginalisation gives a skewed picture. The truth is that the labour market has been organised in a way that differentiates between groups of people. This sorting of people also provides an opportunity to demand subordination of groups that are considered to deviate from the norm. If you’re a young woman or an immigrant and get a job, you’re supposed to be grateful. This makes it possible to exploit these people more, to demand gratitude, and silence in case of dissatisfaction,’ she says.

A new order is required

So how do we achieve a labour market that is fair to all people? According to Paulina de los Reyes, the instability and lack of security leads to an acceptance of poor conditions. She believes that a new order is required in order to change this. An intersectional perspective is key to understanding that the problem does not lie with the ‘outsiders’, but can rather be attributed to the inequality that is generated by the way the labour market is organised and that stem from changing power relations between employees and employers.

‘What I can see has worked historically is to get organised. The rights contained in labour agreements are not given but rather the products of fierce struggle. There is also a need to denormalise the subordination currently seen in the Swedish labour market.’

Latest updated 16 January 2020