Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 16 News List

It still pays to be a 'true Svensson'

Though the Scandinavian country is renowned for its liberalism, immigrants still have a tougher time of it in Sweden

REUTERS , Stockholm

Newcomers to Sweden are smothered with kindness when it comes to welfare and education, but where jobs are concerned it still pays to be a "true Svensson," as the archetypal Volvo-driving Swede is known.

The Social Democrats who have ruled Sweden for decades have crusaded to wipe out class differences, sexism and racism and Sweden's racial make-up has changed hugely: more than a fifth of the population is now foreign-born or has one foreign parent.

But while Sweden is proud of its reputation for tolerance, experts and immigrants give a different picture of paternalism and prejudice conspiring against foreigners in the workplace.

"If you are black you only get offered menial jobs in Sweden, things like cleaning, no matter how qualified you are," said a black Zimbabwean woman with an economics degree.

The lack of Swedish-language skills is not an excuse, since even after five years of adult education in Sweden immigrants have a 30 percent less chance of finding a job than locals, according to a study by the government's own Integration Board.

Abdullahi Aress, a black 38-year-old Somali, said his own experience shows immigrants are not encouraged to stand on their own two feet. Arriving 15 years ago, he defied official advice by seeking a menial job to support himself while learning the language, instead of living off state handouts.

"You can be part of the welfare system if that's what integration means. But it doesn't," said Aress, who is now head researcher at the Integration Board. "It means being able to work and that's the shortcoming of the Swedish system."

The Board's latest report describes Sweden's labor market as "segregated" and says it is "astounding how many foreign-born academics end up in unqualified jobs despite being in Sweden as long as 16 to 25 years."

Like most places in the world, scratch beneath the surface and you can easily find prejudice in Sweden.

"I don't want any Arab drivers," said Bosse, a white taxi owner. "I'm not racist, but taxi drivers should be from Sweden, speak the language and know their way around."

Some immigrants themselves find that attitude easy to understand. "Back in my country we also prefer to give jobs to our own people," said Adem, an Ethiopian given political asylum in Sweden 10 years ago. "That's not racism, it's human nature."

The world expects better of the enlightened Nordics -- though the real picture when it comes to race is even more checkered in neighboring Denmark, Norway and Finland.

Sweden's center-left government was criticized by newcomers to the EU from eastern Europe for trying to restrict access to jobs. Parliament rejected a bill in April.

Prime Minister Goran Persson had argued that Sweden could be inundated with "welfare tourists." Studies show that immigrants are less likely to abuse welfare than native Swedes, who take more sick leave than anyone else in Europe.

In addition to a close family structure that provides cheap labor to counter Sweden's sky-high taxes, many immigrants, especially from the Middle East, bring a culture of hard work and enterprise that leaves the relaxed locals standing.

"Foreigners have a more enterprising spirit and have changed country already so they take more risks," said Iraqi-born Athiel Hussain Ajeenah, who came to Sweden 20 years ago.

Despite her qualifications as an agricultural engineer and her fluency in Swedish, Arabic, German and English, she had to give up searching for work after applying for "hundreds of jobs -- but they didn't even give me one interview."

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